For years, Joey Del Toro has lived with medical conditions that have affected his abilities and appearance. But Joey hasn’t let his health concerns define him. Instead, he’s focused his energy on moving beyond them and excelling at the sports he loves.
The landscape of Joey Del Toro’s youth was colored by medical experiences. Treatments for Joey’s two health conditions filled his calendar and required frequent road trips from his family’s home in Woodbury, Minnesota, to Mayo Clinic in Rochester. But medical appointments weren’t the only events populating Joey’s schedule as a child. An avid athlete, sports also filled Joey’s days.
During elementary school and middle school, Joey participated in football, hockey and lacrosse. Then, while navigating treatment for a life-threatening cardiac syndrome called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome with Mayo Clinic pediatric cardiologist Bryan Cannon, M.D., Joey switched course, trading in his cleats, sticks, and skates for skis.
Dr. Cannon gave me the green light to go ahead with endurance sports, I didn’t
know at that time if I wanted to excel at Nordic skiing or cross-county running,”
Joey says. He eventually chose Nordic skiing and biathlon, which combines
skiing and precision rifle shooting. Today, he’s a collegiate athlete at Saint
Michael’s College in Vermont.
“I’ve enjoyed seeing him do the things he loves, and I enjoy seeing him accomplish these life goals.”
Megha Tollefson, M.D.
Joey’s sports require stamina, speed, precision and focus. And it’s the ability to focus in particular that has served him well as he’s weathered his health concerns, including ongoing therapy for alopecia areata — a skin condition in which the body’s immune system attacks hair follicles and causes patchy hair loss.
though I know that (his condition) really has affected him so much on a
personal level, I feel like he has not allowed it to hold him back,” says Megha
Tollefson, M.D., a Mayo Clinic pediatric dermatologist
and a member of Joey’s care team. “I’ve enjoyed seeing him do the things
he loves, and I enjoy seeing him accomplish these life goals.”
with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome and alopecia has had a significant effect
on Joey and his family. But the individualized care he’s received from his Mayo
Clinic team has provided the support they’ve needed.
the most fearful piece of this was Joey’s heart condition, and Dr. Cannon was
able to solve that for the rest of his life,” says Joey’s dad, David. “Whereas
the hair — which should be less traumatic from a health perspective — is the
part that lingers on and on. They’ve been compassionate, supportive, understanding
and very good with Joey.”
was about 10 when he began experiencing episodes of an accelerated heart rate —
a symptom of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. “My heartbeat would go up to
220 beats per minutes,” Joey says. “I learned the best way to stop it
was to flip myself upside down and wait for several minutes. After that, it
would stop, and I would be tired but OK.”
is characterized by extra electrical connections in the heart. “When the
heart develops, it starts as a straight tube and folds in on itself. When it
does that, all of these primitive connections that most people have go away,”
Dr. Cannon says. “But in 1 in 750 people, they don’t go away.”
a result of the extra connections, the electrical signal that usually travels
up and down the normal fibers of the heart, triggering it to pump, instead
travels across the abnormal fibers and creates an unusually fast heartbeat.
Joey’s case, his heart was beating at 220 beats per minute having this abnormal
heartbeat,” Dr. Cannon says. “He was pretty active doing sports, and
it was interfering with his participation.”
months separated the occurrences. Other times, it was weeks. Occasionally, it
was only a day. When he felt the fast heartbeat during practice or sporting
events, Joey would sideline himself. In time, as the episodes became more frequent,
Joey’s football coach told the family that he was concerned with Joey’s
participation on the team.
While certain maneuvers, such as inversion, coughing and breath-holding, can disrupt the cycle of abnormal electrical misfiring and slow a rapidly beating heart, the only cure for Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is removing the extra connections through a procedure known as ablation.
Joey and his family were aware of ablation as an option, but it wasn’t until they sought treatment at Mayo Clinic for Joey’s other health concern that they learned he was a candidate for the procedure.
we called Mayo and said we wanted to see a dermatologist for alopecia, they
asked if he had any other medical conditions,” says Joey’s mom, Mary. “We
said he had Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, and they said they’d need to see
him first for that before they started doing anything with his hair.”
“We were able to completely get rid of (the abnormal electrical misfiring), and he hasn’t had any problems since.”
Bryan Cannon, M.D.
At Joey’s initial appointment in Mayo’s Department of Cardiovascular Medicine, he underwent an EKG and echocardiogram. Afterward, they met with Dr. Cannon and learned that ablation might be an option. Dr. Cannon, who helped write international guidelines for treatment of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, says there is no advantage to waiting to do the treatment after age 8.
people get nervous about treating younger patients. But at Mayo Clinic, we have
more experience doing it on younger patients and more complex patients,”
Dr. Cannon says. “We were basically able to say, ‘We’re comfortable doing
this, so let’s do it now.'”
October 2013, Dr. Cannon performed Joey’s ablation procedure, which involved
inserting a catheter equipped with a camera through a blood vessel in Joey’s
leg and threading it to his heart.
figure out where the extra fiber connection is, and we heat it up,” Dr.
Cannon says. “Once we do that, he is cured. We were able to completely get
rid of it, and he hasn’t had any problems since.”
Joey’s heart condition under control, his care shifted to treating the
alopecia, which is the most common cause of hair loss in children. “Alopecia
areata can range from small patches that aren’t noticeable to complete hair
loss,” Dr. Tollefson says. “Joey fell somewhere in the middle. Through
the years, it fluctuated and has gotten better and worse.”
treatment options are available for alopecia areata. None cure the condition, however.
“A lot of the time, the treatment we recommend will help the hair grow
back, but we cannot prevent the flares from happening,” Dr. Tollefson
“This care has definitely allowed me to grow without having to worry about my condition and helped me to accept a lot more, especially with the alopecia.”
Joey Del Toro
For Joey, the treatment that’s produced the greatest benefit has been injectable steroids administered directly to the scalp. Every six to eight weeks for the past six years, Joey and his parents have traveled to Mayo Clinic’s Department of Dermatology for the shots.
injections are painful and cause some bleeding at the injection sites, but they
work to block Joey’s follicles from his immune system, allowing his hair to
grow back. “Every appointment, we would take a picture, and then look at
the picture at the next appointment to track progress and to see where the hair
had started growing,” Joey says. “If I had shots in the early spring,
by the summer, the hair would be a lot thicker, and I would be like, ‘This is
actually worth it.'”
a way to channel his emotions over the years, Joey has focused his energy on
athletics. As a freshman in high school, he joined the cross-country running team.
The next year, he joined his school’s Nordic ski team. During his junior year, after
watching biathlon events in the 2018 Winter Olympics, Joey’s dad registered him
for a nearby novice competition. After participating in that event, Joey was
excelled in skiing and biathlon events through his senior year and focused his
college search on schools with a Nordic ski team that were near a biathlon
training venue. He and his family ultimately decided on St. Michael’s, where he
now studies engineering. Nearly every weekend during the winter, Joey skis with
his college’s Nordic team or competes in biathlon events with a local club.
receives ongoing follow-up for both of his medical conditions from his Mayo Clinic
team. The treatment he receives gives him the freedom to live without being
mired in stress, he says. “This care has definitely allowed me to grow
without having to worry about my condition and helped me to accept a lot more,
especially with the alopecia.”