Death on a Playground: Anthony's Story

By Dr. Robert Tozzi
Published June 24, 2011|

One ordinary day on a playground, a 12-year-old boy announces to his friends, “I have no pulse.” He then collapses to the ground in an apparent full cardiac arrest.  More than a decade ago, this tragic scenario played out for real.
Anthony Cole’s heart had stopped beating, and he was considered clinically dead. The boy was airlifted to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. On the way, he had 13 electrical shocks applied to his chest in a desperate attempt to revive him. Miraculously, his heart was shocked back into its beating state; but by that time, severe, irreversible brain damage had occurred.

This preventable and treatable cardiac arrest left Anthony in a coma for more than a year. Once he was out of the coma, he was left with severe handicaps that would require a lifetime of special care.  The cardiac condition that caused this tragedy is called Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome (WPW). Simply described, the syndrome involves an extra piece of muscle woven into the overall mass of heart tissue that creates an electrical short circuit. In some individuals, this condition is benign – in others it can lead to palpitations or tachycardia – but, in a few, as in Anthony’s case, it can be deadly, leading to sudden and unexpected full cardiac arrest.

In the most recent large-scale school screenings, this condition has been identified in up to one child per 100-1,000. The good news is that WPW is now 100 percent curable. A simple procedure, called an ablation, is used to remove the excess heart muscle, which removes all future risk of sudden death.

But how can you detect a disease that may have no symptoms, even right up to last second, just before the onset of cardiac arrest? A simple EKG can make the diagnosis.


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