Heart disease helps junior learn not to sweat the small stuff

Bryson Petersen

Caleb Nichols, business management junior, studies for an upcoming arts and culture test in the Dillard College of Business Administration. Photo by Bryson Petersen
Caleb Nichols, business management junior, studies for an upcoming arts and culture test in the Dillard College of Business Administration. Photo by Bryson Petersen

The play wasn’t anything extraordinary.

Caleb Nichols, then a sophomore at Rider High School and center defender playing in his first soccer scrimmage of the season, didn’t hesitate. He stepped in front of the ball, blocking it.

Then he collapsed.

Waking up on the field minutes later, he took a frantic ride by ambulance to the hospital. Countless tests and a stay in Cook’s Children’s Hospital in Dallas later, he was diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy – a disease in which his heart is enlarged and the right ventricle has deteriorated from muscle into fat.

Flash forward five years.  Nichols, junior in business management, lives with a device in his chest that acts as a pacemaker and defibrillator and he is on the heart transplant list.

“No matter what, with my condition, I will have to have a transplant,” he said, “It’s the only cure.”

He has had three major surgeries and takes a plethora of medicines on a daily basis, but his disease hasn’t stopped him from excelling in his studies. A full-time student, Nichols is on the dean’s list and is a part of the Redwine Honors Program.

“All of my professors have been really understanding and willing to work with me,” Nichols said, “It’s helped me build better relationships with my professors because they’re just happy that I’m still trying to go through school… They want to do everything they can to help and be supportive.”

Nichols said one professor who has been especially encouraging is Brad Mills, adjunct faculty member in the Dillard College of Business Administration. Mills said he was unaware Nichols had any medical issues for several semesters.

“He’s one of those students who did all of his work, he’s a great student,” Mills said, “but I never knew anything about him as far as his health issues.”

He said that Nichols was an admirable student and deserved all the encouragement he received based solely on his academic ethics. According to Mills’ records, Nichols made excellent grades and never missed a class while Mills’ was his professor.

“You will never… understand the battles that some people face unless they’re willing to disclose them,” he said, “But when somebody goes about their life the way that Caleb does, it’s really impressive. I think it’s a true testament of his character.”

Coincidentally, good character is a requirement for someone in Nichols’ line of work. He serves as a student ministry intern at First Baptist Church where he helps plan events and builds productive relationships with high school students.

“(We) plan games for students,” he said, “Hang out with students outside of church, try to visit them at school, go to their football games, basketball games, volleyball games, soccer games, whatever it is.”

Sterling Sellman, college pastor at FBC, is Nichols’ pastor and has worked with him at the church.

“(Nichols) is a great leader of people,” he said.

Sellman added that Nichols is a positive influence on the FBC students and does not let his disease hinder his work.

“Caleb will be honest with you about his disease and the implications of it,” Sellman said, “He is also very encouraging. He’s a great advocate of Jesus Christ.”

Last summer, Nichols suffered several attacks and spent more than a week in Cook’s children’s hospital in Dallas. He said his disease has been the source of much anger, but that all changed when he left Cook’s.

“I feel more ok with what’s going on because I’ve been through the worst of it,” Nichols said, “I want to enjoy the time I do have… If anything it’s made me get more involved in the things I do with my friends, my church, and the people around me.”

Nichols estimates that the entire process of a heart transplant would cost more than $1.2 million. This year, a campaign was formed to help offset these costs.

“My boss at church (Casey Burt) started the Nickels for Nichols organization,” Nichols said, “They started holding events, opened up the gofundme account, all that stuff.”

Gofundme is an online fundraising tool where donors can give as much or as little as they want, and they have the option of being anonymous or identified. Once word of the fundraising effort spread, the Nickels for Nichols account rose drastically.

“In a week and a half we probably raised $13,000,” Nichols said, “I was trying to keep up with everyone who was donating, and at some point I just gave up because it was so many people right back to back. It was a little overwhelming.”

He added that there was a $10,000 anonymous donation. To date, Nickels for Nichols has raised over $43,000.

Nichols accredits his family, his friends and his church family as being his biggest supporters throughout this entire process. He aspires to become a pastor, run for office, or have any career that will put him in a position to help other people and give back some of the support he has been given. He also has an encouraging message from his unique perspective on life.

“Don’t sweat the little things,” he said, “Don’t take for granted the life you have… Just be thankful that you have a life, you have a job, you’re going to college, and you don’t have to worry when you go to bed at night whether or not your heart’s going to stop working. You have a whole lot of freedom to do things that a lot of people, not just me, don’t have. Don’t take your life for granted.”

Donate to Nichols’ gofundme page.