BRIDGEWATER – Sitting in a couch in her coach’s office recently, Bridgewater College freshman Cassidy Burkholder cowered, squeamish at the sight of a stink-bug crawling on a nearby cushion. But senior Jessica Mullen thought nothing of it, casually flicking the insect, launching it off the couch and into oblivion.
It takes a lot more than a creepy crawler for the easygoing Mullen to come unglued.
But getting past a heart condition she had her whole life but didn’t know about until last year? That was rather unsettling.
Mullen recalled being told 11 months ago that she had an ailment known as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which, in her case, essentially caused half her heart to stop working at random intervals. It explained why she’d been unusually tired her whole life, and why she could only play in short, five- or seven-minute spurts for the Eagles before needing a breather.
“I bawled my eyes out for a good 10 minutes,” Mullen said, describing her reaction after being told she’d have to miss the final seven games of last season because of the diagnosis.
These days, she’s in the best groove of her life.
Mullen, a first-team All-Old Dominion Athletic Conference selection last season, is the league’s reigning Player of the Week after scoring 39 points over two games – including becoming just the 18th player in the BC program’s history to notch 1,000 career points.
This season, finally, the 5-foot-8 guard can play extended stretches without getting tired.
“I play a lot more minutes now than I could ever play before, because my body’s capable,” she said.
It took a long time for her body to get that way.
Mullen, a Purcellville native, said she’s gotten tired quickly her entire life, but she never got any explanation before last year. Some thought she was anemic, so she tried taking more iron. Others thought she didn’t eat enough, so she started inhaling four-plus meals a day. She was tested for sleep disorders because she needed naps just to get through the day, even after a normal night’s sleep. None of it brought substantial results.
Finally, in February last year, she had what she described as “weird feelings” in her chest. When those weird feelings turned into a heart flutter, she went to a doctor for tests.
On Feb. 4, she was diagnosed with WPW, a heart condition that can cause a heart attack and ultimately be fatal. It is especially dangerous for athletes, who obviously need a more active heart than the average person. Mullen was immediately shut down for the season.
It required just a simple operation, though, which she had March 5, and she was back playing basketball a week later. But it took a while for her to feel normal again.
For the first time in her life, really, because she could only play for short stretches before, Mullen had to get in shape as her new heart adjusted to beating normally. Even after playing in a summer league and in open gyms, Mullen said, she still didn’t feel comfortable.
“Every time I’d talk to her [coach Jean Willi] individually, she would say, ‘It’s just taking a little longer, you’ll get there,’” Mullen said. “Because I would be frustrated. It’s just like, this is not working. I’ve never had to be like this.”
Meanwhile, she was adjusting to a new supporting cast – including two freshman starters – and she was being guarded by the opposing team’s best defender every night after averaging 18 points per game a year ago.
Oh, and she was also majoring in mathematics, taking one class where she had to teach herself graph theory.
But Mullen, who hopes to be a middle-school math teacher, thinks she had a breakthrough last week. Her 26 points in a 65-55 win over Emory & Henry on Jan. 5 were a season high; her 3-pointer with 13 minutes, 13 seconds left in that game sent her over the 1,000-point plateau. She’s averaging 15.6 points per game for the Eagles (6-5 overall, 4-1 in the ODAC) this season and is now at 1,032 career points.
Against Virginia Wesleyan on Wednesday – the Eagles’ fifth straight victory – Mullen won the game with an old-fashioned three-point play in the final seconds. She played all 40 minutes in the 61-59 win.
“It was good to see her kind of be that old Jess this past week,” Willi said.
Of course, it’s hard not to wonder just how good “the old Jess” might have been if she had been healthy her entire career.
Even with a sub-standard heart, she was her team’s top scorer last year while averaging 31 minutes per game. But her rhythm was hampered by constantly getting subbed out, and she constantly was low on energy.
“I do think about it - just how much [more] in-shape I could have been,” she said. “Or muscle, I couldn’t gain a lot of muscle before. I’ve always been very thin or very skinny. I think with my body working finally, I can gain muscle better, and I can get in shape, and I can last longer. So yeah, it does go through my mind.”
Beyond her health, Mullen is a rock for her team. One of only two seniors for BC along with forward Katelynn Hottinger, Mullen is one of the Eagles’ smartest players, and she’s a calming influence for her team. She happily provides tips to her younger teammates – or, as needed, protects them from harmless insects.
All that’s left for her to do now is put all of her heart into the rest of her senior season.
“I’m 50 times better than I’ve ever been,” she said. “I don’t sleep all day, I’m not exhausted all day. I can do three days of hard exercise every single day and be OK with it. My muscles aren’t dying. I’m not tired. It’s just a world of difference.”