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Mullen can relate to comeback

Brian Mullen remembers it as if it were yesterday. It was March 20, 1994, the day he intended on becoming the National Hockey League's Tedy Bruschi. Things didn't quite work out the way he had planned.

Mullen, then a 32-year-old, 11-year veteran of the NHL, was on the ice at the New York Islanders' practice rink and his coach, Al Arbour, was happy to see him. Just seven months earlier Mullen had suffered a ''minor" stroke at his Long Island home caused by a small gap between the right and left chambers of his heart, which his doctors believed allowed a blood clot to pass up his left leg, through the small hole in his heart, and into the right side of his brain. No one knew about his heart condition until Aug. 11, 1993, the day he lost control of his motor skills, dropped his keys and couldn't pick them up, bumped into the furniture in his home trying to walk, and suddenly found his speech slurred and his vision blurry.

Like Bruschi's wife, Heidi, Mullen's wife, Linda, was at home at the time and called 911. He was taken first to a local hospital and then to Columbia Presbyterian in Manhattan, where Dr. Ralph Sacco performed open-heart surgery less than a month later to stitch the opening shut. By Halloween, Mullen was back on skates, told by his doctors that since the opening in his heart had been closed, he could never again suffer a similar stroke.

After visiting some of the best cardiologists in New York, Mullen was told the damage had been permanently repaired, and he now had a normal heart and could return to hockey. It was a dream he held then as fervently as Bruschi now holds his of playing for the Patriots again this fall after suffering a mild stroke in February, only days after appearing in the Pro Bowl for the first time.

Mullen was eventually cleared to practice after the effects of the stroke and his surgery dissipated, although the Islanders, like the Patriots, were skeptical. Then-Islanders general manager Don Maloney said at the time, ''The reluctance might have been a little bit out of medical ignorance . . . There was a real perception that he had some of the same heart problems as other athletes in recent times, but at some point you have to rely on the experts and give it a green light. Give it a try."

Mullen and his brother, Joe, had become New York cult heroes because they had begun their hockey careers not on ice but playing roller hockey in a lot next to the New York School of Printing on West 49th Street, smack in the center of Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen. From those unusual roots the Mullen brothers became solid NHL players, with Brian scoring 20 goals or more in seven of his 11 seasons, and he was not ready to quit after his heart problem had been repaired.

Armed with assurances from many of the country's top cardiologists and neurologists, Mullen returned to practice with the Islanders and by that afternoon in March 1994, he believed his health problems were behind him and a return to the NHL was only a few days away.

''I'd seen the best doctors in New York," Mullen recalled this week from his home in New Jersey. ''Some of the top doctors in the world told me I was fine. There would be no problem going back to play. They didn't see any reason why I couldn't come back. I was excited to get back on the ice.

''I skated alone at first but after a while I started practicing. That was harder on my teammates than it was on me. They were afraid to go full out. In situations where I should have been hit they wouldn't hit me or they'd just tap me. Everybody was taking it easy on me. It got to the point I had to yell at a couple of guys. I wanted to see if I was ready.

''That day, Al Arbour had just come up to me on the ice and told me I looked good. They wanted to send me down to the minors for a few games and then they were going to bring me back and put me in the lineup. After we finished I skated off to play some three-on-three with a few teammates at the other end of the ice who weren't playing that night. That's when it happened."

What happened was a seizure that ended Mullen's dream and his career, a seizure that is a reminder that clean bills of health and the doctors who grant them are far from infallible.

''As I was skating down with the extra players I had a seizure," Mullen recalled. ''All of a sudden my left arm started going up in the air. I was trying to bring it down but I couldn't do it. I went into convulsions and passed out. By the time I came to, they had a helicopter in the parking lot to fly me to the hospital."

Even after that, Mullen was medically cleared to return to the NHL. He had been warned by his doctors that such seizures occurred in a small percentage of stroke victims and after his it was suggested he rest a few days and then return to practice, but this time the Islanders balked and so did his family.

''My whole life was upside down," Mullen said. ''I put my family through a lot back then. I still wanted to play, but after that first seizure it didn't look like I could. I'd come back from the effects of the stroke. There was no neurological damage. My speech, the strength on my left side, everything came back. But a small percentage of patients have seizures. Most don't. I was part of that unlucky small percentage. It's no big deal but they were reluctant after that [to let him play].

''For the rest of that season I just skated, but the next season came and they were not going to let me come to camp. In hindsight I wish I'd pushed a little harder to play again but I didn't. I knew in my heart I could make it back but I didn't get a second chance. They made me a scout. Later I was an analyst on the radio for the Rangers. I wish I'd proven I could have done it."

Mullen has had two seizures since, including one while watching the end of a game in the Islanders' video room. He attributes them to tinkering with his medication to avoid some of the drugs' side effects. He has never again had a stroke and still believes his doctors were right when they told him that he could return to professional hockey.

Today, Mullen is on the ice five times a week near his home, coaching his son, working with junior players, and ''sometimes playing in a open hockey league." Although he has never spoken with Bruschi, Mullen has paid attention to his story closely and shares Bruschi's hope that he can become the only known professional athlete other than rodeo cowboy Stran Smith to return to his level of professional play after a stroke.

''You bet I'm rooting for him," Mullen said. ''I remember the TV clip of him with his kids on the field before the Super Bowl. When it first happened I didn't know a lot about his situation. I didn't know how big a stroke he'd had. I think our situations are similar." Except that Bruschi did not have the hole in his heart stitched shut, as Mullen did. According to a source with knowledge of the surgery, the hole in Bruschi's heart was closed by a small, mushroom-shaped plug. Some doctors claim the artificial plug could dislodge or crack from the impact of a football collision. Others dispute that, insisting it's more fail-safe than the procedure Mullen underwent.

Metal and fabric plugs like the one implanted in Bruschi's heart have only been available for a decade and the leading maker, NMT Medical of Boston, is still testing them in patients to win federal approval for large scale use. Doctors so far have implanted 18,000 of the devices, known commercially as CardioSEAL and STARFlex, on a limited basis in the US or in other countries where they are fully approved.

Implanting a plug into the heart defect, called a patent foramen ovale, is far less traumatic than traditional surgical closure, which requires the surgeon to cut through the sternum to get to the heart. Instead, the doctor delivers the plug to the hole in the patient's heart by sliding a long tube through an artery in his groin, requiring minimal recovery time and doing no damage to the bones in his chest.

However, the long-term value of the plugs aren't yet proven. NMT is sponsoring independent studies to see whether its products pose risks such as breaking or becoming dislodged over time. So far, company president John Ahern said the devices bring major complications in fewer than one out of every 200 implanted.

Ahern insisted that Bruschi is not the only professional athlete who has received the plug. ''There's other professional athletes that have had their [patent foramen ovales] closed, but they're not talking about it," Ahern said.

''I always wanted to make it back to the NHL," said Mullen. ''It was very, very difficult to give the game up. It's been 10 years and I've moved on with life, but I'm not really totally at peace with how things ended. I'm glad to see he's going to try. If somebody can do it, I hope it's him."

Scott Allen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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