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Alyssa L.'s Story

Alyssa L.'s Story

Swift Action Saved Young Athlete from Sudden Cardiac Arrest

It was a perfect September day—70 degrees with a breeze—when Alyssa L. was finishing her fifth uphill, 800-meter run. A freshman at Warren Hills Regional High School, Alyssa had just joined the school’s Girls Cross Country team the week before.

Shortly into her second run, though, “I just had this kind of ‘out of it’ feeling,” Alyssa says. She was lightheaded and had trouble catching her breath. “My coach asked if I was OK,” she says. “I sat down for five minutes. But then I felt fine enough to keep running.”

So, she did. But a little while later, “I felt a cramp in my stomach. I started seeing grey, then black blotches. My heart was beating really fast. Really hard. I had a burning feeling on the right side of my chest.”

Seconds later, she passed out. Within seconds, her coaches and fellow students rushed to her side. The immediate and heroic steps they took pulled Alyssa out of sudden cardiac arrest and saved her life.

Start Hands-Only CPR, Call 911 and Apply AED

Bridget M., captain of the girls’ team and a lifeguard at Oxford Furnace Lake, was the first to see that Alyssa needed help and raced to the athletic training room for assistance. She banged on the door so hard that the glass nearly broke. 

Meanwhile, Katie Moritz, head coach of the Girls Cross Country team, and Zach Fisher, coach of the Boys Cross Country team, sprinted some 30 yards to Alyssa. Initially they thought she might be having a seizure, but once they saw her body go limp, they rapidly switched gears. Moritz started chest compressions while Zach dialed 911. “Alyssa didn’t have a pulse,” she says.

While all this was happening, Rich M., captain of the boys’ team, ran to get one of the school’s automated external defibrillators (AED). “I had received CPR training when I was in the Boy Scouts, I’m certified in CPR and knew where the AED was [inside a nearby equipment shed] because I’ve passed by it many times,” Rich says. Within seconds he was at Alyssa’s side with the AED. 

Thanks to Bridget’s knowledge as a lifeguard and strenuous efforts to get additional help, Brian Dorn, the schools’ assistant athletic trainer, raced up the hill and saw Coach Katie doing chest compressions. 

Brian told Katie to keep doing hands-only CPR – which requires no breaths to be administered. So, Brian applied the AED pads to Alyssa’s lifeless body and followed the AED prompts to restart Alyssa’s heart. 

Within minutes, police and other first responders from the Washington and Oxford Emergency Squads were on-scene and immediately arranged for air transport to Morristown Medical Center. "Everything just seemed to fall into place...I call them the Fab Five as a nod to my dad who was a huge Beatles Fan because they worked perfectly as a team to save Alyssa's life," said her mom, Ana.

Everyone involved knew the emergency actions to take: Get help, call 911, start compressions and send someone to find an AED. Fortunately, some of the high school coaches, including Katie, were recertified in CPR just a week before Alyssa’s incident.

The key message is that an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) that includes rapid CPR and AED use, is a critical part of how we can all improve the health and safety of our communities.

Matthew W Martinez, MD

Solving the Mystery of Alyssa’s Heart Condition

Alyssa’s heart quickly returned to a normal rhythm, and she was alert during the ambulance ride and Northstar flight to Morristown Medical Center’s Goryeb Children’s Hospital. Early the next morning, Alyssa met with Donna Timchak, MD, a board-certified, fellowship-trained pediatric cardiologist at Goryeb who began investigating what caused Alyssa’s cardiac arrest.

After obtaining a thorough medical history, Dr. Timchak performed a full physical exam and reviewed her echocardiogram, electrocardiogram (EKG), and blood work.   

She also reached out to “Coach Katie” and her colleagues to learn more about what happened at the school.  Dr. Timchak obtained the information recorded by the AED and an EKG taken by first responders, which confirmed that Alyssa had suffered from a cardiac event. Further tests confirmed that she did not have any residual brain deficiencies.  

Dr. Anjali Chelliah, the Division Chief of Pediatric Cardiology at Goryeb, and an expert in advanced pediatric imaging, performed a low-radiation cardiac CT scan to confirm an abnormal finding that Dr. Timchak had identified on Alyssa’s echocardiogram.

The team’s expert imaging and careful detective work was instrumental in  solving the puzzle – an anomalous aortic origin of a coronary artery (AAOCA). It’s a congenital (present from birth) heart defect that can limit blood flow to the heart during periods of intense physical activity.  AAOCA is one of the rare congenital lesions that can lead to heart rhythm disturbances and subsequent sudden cardiac arrest requiring CPR and defibrillation. In her case, an AAOCA involving the left coronary artery affected her while running and caused her sudden cardiac arrest.

Highly Specialized Care

Goryeb Children’s Hospital’s Pediatric Cardiology team specializes in high-level, non-invasive cardiac treatments. When surgery is required, such as in Alyssa’s case, she was referred to  David M. Kalfa, MD, PhD, Director of the Pediatric Heart Valve Center and Surgical Director, Initiative for Pediatric Cardiac Innovation at Columbia. Dr. Kalfa performed a complex surgical procedure called a left coronary artery unroofing, where the left coronary artery opening is  enlarged and widened. 

Part of Alyssa’s post-op care at Goryeb Children’s Hospital included cardiac rehabilitation from Matthew W. Martinez, MD, Director of Atlantic Health System Sports Cardiology at Morristown Medical Center. Dr. Martinez is a nationally recognized expert in caring for athletes with heart conditions who says, “The key message is that an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) that includes rapid CPR and AED use, is a critical part of how we can all improve the health and safety of our communities. The best way to do that is by being prepared with training and education in these procedures.”

Nearly 11 weeks after her cardiac arrest Alyssa underwent a thorough follow-up cardiac evaluation and received great news. “She has normal blood flow without turbulence in the area that was repaired,” Dr. Timchak says. “All segments of the heart muscle analyzed are receiving excellent perfusion.”

Celebrating Alyssa’s Return

At the end-of-year cross country banquet, the five individuals who took quick action to save Alyssa that September day received a Lifesaving Award from the community. Just as everyone in the audience rose to give them a standing ovation, in walked Alyssa. “To see her walk through those doors—that was very cool,” Zach Fisher says.

"I can ride roller-coasters and go back to running again,” Alyssa says. And Dr. Timchak says Alyssa can compete in the next track season if she chooses. No matter what, Alyssa will be forever grateful to the incredible people who saved her life.

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