Coaches save Idaho teen whose heart stopped on field

EMTs on their way told the coaches to hold off on shocking the boy's heart, but they went ahead

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

SALT LAKE CITY — If not for his coaches' quick action, 17-year-old Ross Palmer would be dead.

The American Falls, Idaho, football player collapsed Tuesday evening while running wind sprints. Two of his coaches started cardiopulmonary resuscitation while another ran into his high school to grab the school's new AED, a portable heart defibrillator.

Emergency technicians on their way told the coaches to hold off on shocking Ross' heart, but they went ahead. And that, says Intermountain Medical Center cardiac surgeon Brian Crandall, was what kept Ross from becoming a statistic.

"Sudden death in athletes is quite common in the United States," Crandall said Friday. An estimated 1,000 die each year of unknown heart defects. "If [Ross] had not been shocked," Crandall said, "no way would he have come out of that."

On Friday, a team led by cardiac surgeon Peter Weiss placed a pager-size stimulator device in Ross' chest, just below his left collarbone, then threaded a sensor wire through his arm's subclavian vein into his heart.

The device won't fix the young athlete's heart, but it will protect him. From now on, if Ross' heart goes into ventricle fibrillation arrest -- quivering instead of beating -- the implantable cardiac defibrillator, or ICD, will shock his heart back into action.

"Every doctor, every EMT I talked to, said 'Your son should be dead,' " said Travis Palmer, Ross' father, who with other family members waited at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray during the 11/2-hour implant procedure.

"I'm glad he's here," said Diana Palmer, Ross' mother.

While the family was impressed and grateful for the surgery, what they most wanted to emphasize is the need for more AEDs, in schools, malls, and everywhere, and for more people with CPR training so lay people can jump in to help save lives.

"That's the purpose of it. You don't have to wait for the ambulance," said Ross' grandmother, Bobbie Branch, a nurse educator. "The problem is, there aren't enough of them."

Sudden death in athletes has a long recorded history. In 490 B.C., the young Greek messenger Phidippedes ran 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens, then collapsed and died. More recently, 6-foot-5-inch Olympic volleyball star Flo Hyman died in 1986 of a ruptured aorta caused by Marfan syndrome, a congenital condition that affects tall, lanky people. NBA player Pete Maravitch died in 1988 shortly after playing half-court basketball at a church. In 2001, Reggie Lewis, the top scorer and captain of the Boston Celtics, abruptly fell to the floor at age 27 while shooting baskets at a gymnasium.

Crandall said only rarely can doctors figure out what caused this type of sudden death.

Coaches in the American Falls School District must undergo CPR training, the Associated Press reported. The football coaching staff had just completed a refresher course. One of the coaches, who works for Idaho Power, had experience using an AED.

Diana Palmer said that when Ross collapsed, his teammates at first thought he was playing around. "He turned and dropped," she said. "They just thought he was probably tired."

Then Ross started convulsing. "He wasn't breathing," his mother said. "He didn't have a pulse."

Two coaches started CPR but had trouble clearing his airway. One of Ross' teammates ran to the locker room to get his cellphone and call Diana Palmer. Someone else ran to a school building to call 911.

The whole episode lasted about five minutes, but one of the coaches told Travis Palmer it seemed much longer. "He said it was amazing, how having that training, your instincts are just going to kick in," Palmer said.

Ross spent Wednesday in a Pocatello hospital, where his family, team members, coaches and students waited while he was stabilized.

Before starting surgery Friday, the IMC team determined Ross has an inherited heart condition. His family or any children could have genetic tests to find out whether they are at risk, so they might have an ICD put in their chests, too.

Such caution makes sense, Crandall said, as the usual first warning of this kind of heart problem is death.

The ICD is programmed with algorithms that make it possible for the machine to anticipate problems and head them off.

The battery will wear out in six to 12 years, depending on how often it has to perform. Ross will have to be checked every six months with a wand-like instrument that can sense whether everything is working properly.

A star wide receiver and cornerback, Ross has been told he can't ever play football again. Nor basketball, which the American Falls senior also plays. In fact, no contact sports at all.

"He can maybe play baseball," Diana Palmer said. "I told him he could play badminton. It's hard to tell a kid who's played football since third grade he can play badminton."

Copyright 2011 The Salt Lake Tribune
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