Admit it, you couldn’t look away. Like a car crash or scenes from a natural disaster, it was one of those televised moments when the viewer was transfixed, wide-eyed and frozen.
There was tournament leader Charlie Beljan, a man who had just shot 64 in the Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Disney, being wheeled out of the scoring trailer on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance. Throughout his round, he had looked like he was having a heart attack, bending over, holding his chest, swallowing air like he was suffocating. If his caddy’s look of concern wasn’t enough to let everyone know this was serious, the paramedics following Beljan’s every step were a dead giveaway.
He’d begun feeling light-headed and jittery on the range before the round, his heart fluttering like he had a bird in his chest. Then he began to hyperventilate. His arms went numb. His chest tightened. He thought he was going to die.
“I was scared,” he said. “I’ve never been that scared. I honestly feared for my life.”
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that Beljan wasn’t having a heart attack or a stroke, but the symptoms of the event were no less serious. Racing heart, shortness of breath, light-headedness that can often lead to a loss of consciousness: these symptoms could point to a myriad of serious heart conditions.
They are also signs of a panic attack, the diagnosis Beljan received after an anxious and sleepless night in the hospital where he laid in bed with tubes in his arms and monitors on the chest, his golf shoes still on his feet until 4:30 in the morning.
“It’s freezing in those hospitals,” he said. “As far as blood work, the CAT scan, the lungs, the heart, everything was wonderful, which is a huge relief.”
It wasn’t the first time he experienced something physical that he didn’t understand. In August, just before the birth his first son, he had a similarly episode.
“Coming home from the Reno Tahoe tournament I actually passed out on the airplane,” he said. “And since then I haven't been quite the same. I've gone and had a million tests done, and all the results come back that I'm as healthy as can be. I think it's just a little bit mental. And that really did scare me to pass out on the airplane.”
The condition is taking center stage because Beljan overcame his anxiety and won the golf tournament, shooting weekend rounds of 71-69 to edge Matt Every by two shots. Afterward, every friend he’s ever known called, texted or emailed to give him their amateur diagnosis.
All were thrilled by Charlie’s win, but most were quick to dismiss the panic attack as no big deal: like jitters before a date or butterflies before a job interview.
Unfortunately, it is a lot more serious than that.
Dr. Wayne Katon, adjunct professor in the psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Washington has written extensively on the subject. In the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Katon said, “There are both biologic and environmental causes for panic disorder. And the risk of panic disorder is increased by a factor of eight in first-degree relatives of patients with the disorder.”
Those who live with the disease know this all too well.
“My mother had it, I have a cousin that has it, and (my daughter) now struggles with it,” said PGA member Whitney Crouse, founder of Affinity Golf Partners and someone who has suffered from panic attacks for 30 years.
“I had my first one when I was 23,” Course said. “What people need to understand is that it is biological, and it often comes out of nowhere. And when it happens, you truly think you’re going to die. There is a huge difference between general anxiety, which everyone has, and a full-blown panic attack which can be debilitating if you don’t know what you’re dealing with.”
Too many people write off what they don’t understand. So panic attacks get shoved in the same box as conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Attention Deficit Disorder, maladies that can ruin lives but ones that are often pooh-poohed as nothing more than being lazy or inattentive.
According to Dr. Katon, “Panic disorder occurs in approximately three to eight percent of patients seen by primary care physicians. The disorder is twice as common among women as among men, and there appears to be a bimodal distribution in the age onset, with one peak at late adolescence and a second peak in the mid-30s.”
“I still deal with it,” Crouse said. “Mine come mainly at night. Doctors know so much more about it now than they did 30 years ago. For me, I take medication, but I also have to live a healthy lifestyle – easy on the caffeine, I can’t drink alcohol, and I have to eat well and work out. Now the treatment is much more advanced, and the awareness is getting better.
“What I hope people take away from this – and Charlie Beljan’s episode, in some ways, may have helped – is to understand that this is just like living with any other disease. It can be managed and you can live a very high-functioning life.”
Beljan is a testament to that. So is Crouse.
“Look, if some PGA member is struggling with this and wants to call me, I’d love to help,” Crouse said. “I can spot someone dealing with it now. You can’t believe the number of people I’ve helped just by telling them about the treatment that’s available. Once they’re in the program, they’re fine.”
It was a win that caught a lot of attention, perhaps more so than any other in this post-major time of the year. Now perhaps Charlie Beljan, a 28-year-old few people outside the game knew before last week, has unwittingly helped others by shining a light on a disorder millions suffer through in silence.
“That would be great, wouldn’t it?” Crouse said. “We can only hope.”