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‘When this happens, you realize how fragile life is’

Krystle Wagner • May 17, 2019 at 2:00 PM

As local seniors prepare to celebrate graduation, we’re featuring one particular high school senior who overcame significant challenges to reach graduation. See photos of all our local graduates in the Grad Tab, which is inserted into today’s Tribune. 

As Luke Anhalt enters the final days of high school, the “what if” thoughts of almost not having those moments to cherish together leave his mom, Samantha, choked up.

Life for the Spring Lake family changed this past December when Luke collapsed with sudden cardiac arrest. After undergoing surgery and easing back into his daily activities, the 17-year-old will graduate with his Fruitport Calvary Christian High School classmates next week.

Growing up

Luke has played soccer since he was 3. It’s a sport that Luke said defines him the most, although many people have come to know him as a basketball player.

In the fall, Luke played on his school’s soccer team, and in the spring he played for Lakeshore Premier. He previously played for the West Michigan Storm.

Luke started playing basketball in fifth grade, and was a member of his high school team this past winter.

At school, Luke is also a member of the chapel worship team, which he said has been a “great experience.” In addition to the worship team and sports, he takes three advanced classes — calculus, physics and Spanish 4.

Lately, Luke said he’s been trying to interact more with people and spend time with friends.

December

During team practice on Dec. 13, 2018, the squad was shooting free throws when Luke missed a shot. He ran across the gym and collapsed when he returned to the line.

Coach Jeff Zehr immediately instructed teammates to grab an automated external defibrillator (AED).

“I was in a fatal (heart) rhythm, and the defibrillator called for a shock, then chest compressions,” Luke said.

Luke’s heart received a second shock when paramedics arrived. After being stabilized and undergoing scans at Mercy Hospital in Muskegon, Luke was transferred to Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.

Four days later, Luke had a defibrillator implanted, which monitors his heart and is ready to supply a shock if it is needed.

“It’s not like a pacemaker. It’s not doing anything for my heart,” he explained. “It’s just sitting there monitoring it like a guardian angel.”

Prior to the experience, Luke was healthy and in good shape. Throughout various tests, including genetic testing, Luke’s doctors never found a cause for his sudden cardiac arrest. It wasn’t until Luke returned home and saw his clothes that he remembered getting ready for the day and attending chapel at school. The rest of his memory about that day is blank.

A week after Luke entered the hospital and had surgery, his family celebrated Christmas, which Luke said was “emotional and sweet.”

Luke has an older brother, Alex; a younger sister, Cate; and a younger brother, Will.

“It was a time that we all appreciated and cherished and were grateful for because it’s easy to take that stuff for granted,” Luke said. “When this happens, you realize how fragile life is and how stuff like Christmas matters.”

Moving forward

Although Luke returned to the same school and hallways he has walked for years, he felt there was a difference — a sense of calmness.

In the beginning, Luke quickly grew tired.

“It was exhausting, but it was nice to be back and trying to make things normal and how they were before,” he said.

While restricted from activities for six weeks, Luke attended basketball practice to support his teammates.

While in the hospital, Luke received notes and cookies from people he didn’t know or didn’t speak with much. He said the experience gave him a greater appreciation for people and the importance of relationships.

“You learn that people care about other people,” he said.

As the ceremonial aspects of graduation near, Samantha Anhalt said she tears up seeing the way seniors interact with each other, which she chalks up to “a normal senior mom feeling.” She also has the thoughts about “what if” they didn’t get to experience those moments.

“It hit me (that) we could have had senior pictures and no senior because we did the pictures in the summer,” she said. “Once in a while those kinds of things — the what if and what could have been — hits me in a different way.”

Samantha said the family has experienced Luke’s health issues in different ways, and appreciate big and small things — family time and recognizing each moment is valuable. She said they want to steward well the opportunity to have a new look at life.

In the fall, Luke plans to study pre-med at Spring Arbor University, where he will also play soccer. 

After wanting to be a race car driver when he was younger, Luke set his sites on becoming a surgeon like his dad, Jeff, who is a foot and ankle surgeon. Luke is now leaning toward specializing in cardiology after his experience.

“I just want to do whatever I can to prevent future problems like this,” he said. “I didn’t really have a cause, but there’s plenty of people who have heart diseases that can be helped to prevent that. I figure I can relate to them a little better than other people can.”

When people find themselves going through challenging times, Luke encourages them to find those who are important to them and to hold onto them. Throughout his time in the hospital, Luke’s family, best friend Zachary Zehr and girlfriend Kelsey Richards were there to support him daily.

Luke said you may never know the good that can come from your struggles.

“God’s always got a plan. He’s there,” Luke said. “You’re not just there going through hard times just because of something you did or because God hates you. It just might be there to strengthen you, and you might come out the other side feeling stronger and better than you ever could have known. Other people can be affected in a way you never knew possible.”

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