Since he was a little kid, John Kostal dreamed of flying. At 21 years old, he was on the verge of achieving it as part of the United States Air Force.

Then he got the bad news. After years of working toward a coveted pilot’s slot, his medical exams had detected a lingering heart problem…

He had one last hope: a procedure that, if successful, could cure him once and for all. He came back to Connecticut Children’s to have it.

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John and his family when he was younger

When his Air Force medical exam revealed the potential for tachycardia, an unusually fast heart rate, John was crushed — but not shocked. He’d been born with a condition known as Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome. Since he was an infant, he’d been under the care of Connecticut Children’s Heart Center.

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John was willing to take the risk of developing heart block if the surgery wasn’t successful. He was that committed to serving our nation... We knew this could affect his career path. We were dedicated to working with him not just for his health, but for his goals in life.

Shailendra Upadhyay, MD, CEPS, FHRS,
Division Head, Pediatric Cardiology, Connecticut Children's

What is Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome?

Wolff-Parkinson White Syndrome means one is born with an extra electrical pathway between the heart’s upper and lower chambers,

WPW syndrome usually isn’t life-threatening, but it requires careful monitoring, and sometimes corrective procedures.

Besides regular visits with his heart doctors, John didn’t think much about it during his childhood. Growing up in Avon, he was able to play sports without limitations, and regularly climbed into the cockpit with his dad, who held a private pilot’s license. That’s where he caught the flying bug.

“I was so little, I couldn’t see outside the plane,” John remembers. “I was just looking at all the instruments and the gauges. I was fascinated.”

When he was 9 years old, new-and-improved technology became available for a corrective procedure for WPW syndrome — a moment his Connecticut Children’s team had been anticipating. Unlike open heart surgery, this kind of procedure uses a thin tube called a catheter, inserted through a vein near the groin. The tip of the tube produces radio waves or, in John’s case, extreme cold to destroy tissue in the small area of the heart that can cause a fast heart beat.

To 9-year-old John, the procedure didn’t seem like a bigger deal than that time he had his appendix out, or visited the emergency department after a capture-the-flag incident. It didn’t cure him completely, but it significantly improved his condition — all but eliminating the risk of serious issues.

His parents heaved a sigh of relief. For awhile, that seemed to be that.

Until the Air Force medical exam.

John at the U.S. Air Force air show

To still have a shot at becoming a pilot, John needed another procedure. And this one needed to cure his condition once and for all.

He was in his senior year at UConn with the Air Force ROTC program. Even at age 21, it made sense to return to Connecticut Children’s.

“These were the people who were taking care of me throughout my childhood, so I knew they would be the ones who knew the most about my circumstances,” he says.

Needless to say, a catheter ablation requires not just the right technology, but the right skills from the experts guiding it. John’s case was especially complicated, because his extra electrical pathway was very close to his heart’s normal pathway. If the team was even a few millimeters off, his healthy tissue could be injured — and he’d likely need a pacemaker for the rest of his life.

“I was a lot more nervous for the procedure as a 21-year-old than as a 9-year-old,” he admits. But he knew that his cardiology team, led by Shailendra Upadhyay, MD, CEPS, understood what it meant to him.

All told, the procedure took around 6 hours. It was a success.

A few months later, First Lieutenant John Kostal was commissioned as an officer in the United States Air Force. In 2021, he earned his pilot wings.

First Lieutenant John Kostal stands (and flies!) proud as a United States Air Force officer.

“Simply put, I wouldn’t be doing what I do today without Connecticut Children’s,” says John. “When I received my diagnosis at 2 months old, if you had told my parents that their son was going to grow up to be an Air Force pilot, they would probably have had their doubts. The procedures and the care that I received made that dream a reality.”

Sometimes, when he’s going through his pre-flight ritual — donning his helmet, his gloves, his harness — that thought stops him in his tracks.

“It hits me: how lucky I am to be where I am today, and how fortunate I am to have this opportunity. It’s all I could’ve ever hoped for,” John says.

“When I think of Beyond Imagination, I think of not being afraid to dream big,” he adds. “I hope that kids who are dealing with health issues can see stories like mine, and realize they shouldn’t limit their aspirations. Keep dreaming big. Those dreams are within reach.”