Jonathan Burt and his brother Ryan both received Fitbit Inspire 2s as Christmas gifts in 2020. Honestly, his parents thought the device would probably be more useful for Ryan, who had just started high school and was running on the cross country team. He can use the clock during his breaks. Jonathan, who was a few years younger at 13, was not as athletic as his older brother. He pursued more sedate pursuits of hunting and fishing in the farmlands and deserts around their small town of Kyle, Texas. Perhaps, his stepmother Brianna thought, the trackers would inspire a little friendly competition and encourage Jonathan to be more active.
The gift changed Jonathan’s life, but in a way no one in the family could have predicted.
One day, the following spring, Jonathan and Ryan were playing video games on the family couch while they compared their heart rate readings on their trackers. The difference was astounding. Ryan’s heart was in the low 70s, but Jonathan’s pulse was over 120 beats per minute. Why, they wondered, was there such a difference when they were both resting on the couch?
Jonathan’s parents agree that the difference is worth tracking. Over the next few weeks, the brothers will compare their heart rates during the day. At times, Jonathan’s heart was beating much faster than his brothers—sometimes at twice the rate. Even when he was sleeping his heart was pounding.
Finally, they made an appointment with the family pediatrician. After confirming that the trackers are collecting accurate data, the pediatrician refers them to a cardiac clinic. Those doctors examined Jonathan’s heart using an echocardiogram, a machine that uses sound waves to create pictures of the heart and reveal how well blood is moving from chamber to chamber. After analyzing the images, they had a possible answer to why Jonathan’s heart was always working so hard. Doctors believed he had an atrial septal defect, a small hole in his heart between the two upper chambers.
Doctors decided to use a catheter with a small camera at the tip to solve the problem. A few weeks later, Jonathan went in for the procedure. They inserted a long thin, flexible tube through a blood vessel in the groin and guided it to the heart. Once there, the plan was to place a small plug in the hole. Eventually, heart tissue will grow around the edge of the plug to seal the hole. Unfortunately, when the doctors saw the catheter fully inserted, they had to change their plans.
“What they discovered was not just one hole in Jonathan’s heart, but several, and they were bigger than expected,” Brianna recalls. “Doctors described part of his heart as being like Swiss cheese.”
When Jonathan woke up from the process, they had to tell him the bad news. The solution to his condition would be open-heart surgery.
“It was a very stressful time,” Briana says. “Often the doctors wanted to talk to us adults about what was going to happen and what the risks were. Jonathan was adamant from the start. He told us, ‘I want to know what they are saying.’ We had to keep our emotions under control because we didn’t want to get scared in front of him. We wanted to stay positive.”
The date was set for May 2022, about a year after she first noticed how different her heartbeat was from her brother’s. They had to open Jonathan’s chest and put him on a cardiopulmonary bypass machine for over 40 minutes so they could stop his heart to fix the holes.
The morning after the surgery, the effect was already evident. Jonathan’s heart rate was already within normal limits. He spent five days in the hospital, and it took several weeks for the incision to heal and for Jonathan to fully recover. Jonathan’s birth parents separated when he was young and he now belongs to a loving blended family with two sets of parents to help look after him.
“We include each other in every decision and try to give each other a lot of grace,” says Briana, who has been Jonathan’s stepmom for nearly ten years. “This was important because everyone on board and Jonathan needed a positive space to heal.”
Briana believes that without his Fitbit, Jonathan would have been unaware of the seriousness of his condition. “It was probably a defect he had from birth,” she says. “His heart function was normal for him. It was something he had always felt. I think that Fitbit saved his life by revealing how hard his heart was working.”
It’s been months since the surgery, and Jonathan’s resting heart rate is often below 60 beats per minute. Now 15, she looks forward to starting high school in the fall. He wants to join the 4H club and ROTC. Her father is law enforcement, and she wonders if her love of the outdoors is combining with her father’s career. Perhaps he could be a park ranger or a game warden. But that is far from it. For now, he’s going to a weeklong summer camp at Lake Brownwood near Abilene, where he’ll fish and ride horses and be a regular teenager enjoying a hot Texas summer.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a medical diagnosis or treatment option. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always consult your doctor before changing your diet, changing your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.