Sofia Montoya had been practicing her favorite song for her elementary school’s talent show April 22. She sang Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” over and over again with her mother, Shawna.
But Sofia didn’t make it to the show.
The bubbly, bright third-grader at Farallone View Elementary in Montara, California, was on the playground on April 18. She’d been playing on a playscape but sat down on the ground, told a classmate she felt “weird,” and fell backward.
Sofia’s heart had stopped.
Staff members saw the lifeless child and called 911. The dispatcher walked a staffer through CPR. A sheriff in the neighborhood heard the call come over 911 and went to the scene and took over. A school secretary called Shawna.
“Her voice was shaking, and she said, ‘Something bad has happened. You need to get to school right away,’” Shawna said.
When Shawna arrived, she saw two firetrucks and two ambulances. Panicked, she tried to tell herself it “must be an open fracture,” she said.
She walked toward the playground, noticing a horrible quiet. The children had been taken inside. She saw only Sofia, lying on the ground. Her own heart almost stopped.
“I saw her lying in the wood chips on the playground. It was so still and quiet on the playground,” Shawna said. All she could see was her daughter with an oxygen mask on and a neck brace.
A firefighter captain approached her.
“The good news is that we do have a pulse,” he told Shawna. “And she’s taking some breaths on her own.”
That’s good news? Shawna thought. “What is going on?”
Sofia had gone into cardiac arrest, they told her. She’d need to be transported by Life Flight to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford in Palo Alto.
Shawna called her husband, Dan, who rushed to the hospital. “We got to see her for five minutes before they rushed her off,” Shawna said. “I saw one of her tennis shoes on the floor and wood chips in her hair.”
Had Sofia not received CPR from a bystander and shocks from an automated external defibrillator, she would not have survived, said Scott Ceresnak, M.D., her pediatric cardiologist at Packard Children’s.
“The CPR and AED saved her life,” Ceresnak said.
It took several days for doctors to diagnose Sofia’s disorder — a very rare type of long QT syndrome, a condition that affects the heart’s electrical activity. Sofia carries a gene known as CALM3 that has only recently been identified, Ceresnak said.
Doctors implanted a cardioverter defibrillator — or what Sofia knows as “heart helper” — to help prevent another cardiac arrest.
Tests are still being done to determine treatment going forward, and Sofia has just completed cardiac rehabilitation. Sofia still has some memory problems, Shawna said, and she is not reading at the high level she did before her collapse.
Sofia does not remember collapsing. She isn’t exactly clear why Life Flight nurse Shara Griffis is such a good friend or why nurses at the children’s hospital tear up when they see her. But Shawna and Dan know, and they are forever grateful to Sofia’s treatment team, from the bystanders to firefighters to the surgical team, and to those who fund and conduct research on heart disease.
“She is the culmination of many, many years of hard work,” said Shawna. “We’re those people whose kid’s life was saved because of you.”
Lynda Knight, director of the Revive Initiative for Resuscitation Excellence at Stanford Children’s Health, has conducted studies about the effectiveness of bystander CPR. Based, in part, on those studies, Revive sends CPR Anytime kits home with parents of children with heart disease. Also, more than 1,500 local healthcare professionals are trained yearly in pediatric advanced life support through the Revive American Heart Association Training Center at the children’s hospital.
“It all came full circle with this amazing little girl,” Knight said. “She has become the little light in my life. Sofia is why I do what I do every day.”
Ceresnak said that seeing Sofia healthy again is the greatest reward.
“To see that smile that goes from ear to ear, that zest for life, it’s just so great to see her alive and doing well,” he said.
While Sofia did not get to sing “Fight Song” at the talent show, she and her mother sang it together as she was being wheeled into surgery for her ICD.
And, the school played an audio recording of Sofia singing the song when they held the talent show four days after her cardiac arrest. A teacher held up cue cards for the children to sing the refrain together.
“I think it’s safe to say there wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Shawna said.