When the 19th annual Greater Cleveland Sports Awards take place next month, the area's top professional, collegiate and high school athletes will be honored.
Among them will be 15-year-old Sophia Pecjak, who the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission announced will receive the Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Courage Award, which is presented to an athlete who displays courage beyond the boundaries of their playing field, in order to inspire those around them.
Even before her high school career at Lake Catholic began, Pecjak was considered a top level soccer player. But her athletic career -- and much more -- was nearly taken away from her when she woke up with a funny feeling in her chest in September of 2014.
During an ensuing visit to the Cleveland Clinic, a doctor discovered an abnormal echocardiogram (EKG). While waiting to meet with a cardiologist a few days later, Pecjak began feeling lethargic and unable to eat or drink.
As symptoms worsened, so did her vision. After going to the emergency room and undergoing another EKG, it was discovered that Peckjak was in heart failiure, most likely due to myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle usually caused by a viral infection.
Peckjak then proceeded to go into cardiac arrest shortly after being brought to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Medical professionals were able to revive and stabilize her long enough to use a treatment involving an artificial lung and pump to circulate blood back to the bloodstream.
After staying on the treatment for five days, she was placed on the heart transplant list. Eventually, however, results from tests showed her heart had nearly gone back to its normal size and she could be taken off the transplant list.
Nevertheless, she faced a long road ahead. Following her 21-day stay in the hospital, Pecjak was able to return to school part-time, although her physical activity was restricted.
But the course of the following year, Pecjak was able to return to competitive sports -- soccer and basketball -- with no restrictions while receiving outpatient cardiac treatment at the Cleveland Clinic.
“Playing sports has always been a big part of my life,” said Pecjak. “I feel very blessed to not only be given a second chance at life, but also have the physical ability to continue participating in something that means so much to me.”
The Cleveland Clinic Children’s Pediatric Heart Failure and Transplant team still follow Pecjak. She hopes to one day join the medical profession in an effort "to help kids like me."
“Sophia embodies the essence of courage, facing a life-threatening illness with grace, faith, strength and of course, courage,” said Colleen Nasman, RN, BS, Pediatric Heart Transplant Coordinator at Cleveland Clinic. “Never a complaint, never a why me, just determination and enduring optimism.”
Sophia will be honored at the 19th annual Greater Cleveland Sports Awards, which will take place at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel Grand Ballroom on Wednesday, Feb. 6. Past winners of the Courage Award include:
2008 – Eric Anderson, Jr., Gilmour Academy, Basketball
2009 – Gyasi Cooper, St. Ignatius High School, Track & Field
2010 – Olivia Warhop, Hathaway Brown School, Swimming & Soccer
2011 – Brandee Kelly, Cleveland State University, Basketball
2012 – Molly Miller, Notre Dame Academy, Soccer
2013 – Courteney Belmonte, Westlake, Competitive Cheerleading
2014 – Nick Lenyo, Huron, Football
2015 – Colin Teets, Westlake, Hockey
2016 – Kendra Seitz, Hudson, Competitive Swimming
2017 – Samer Babi, North Olmsted, Football
2018 – Sophia Pecjak, Mentor, Soccer & Basketball