For years, New Hampshire cardiologist Jon Wahrenberger has pushed for two guidelines that would help save lives in an emergency: teaching CPR in schools and equipping public facilities with AEDs, a machine to shock a stopped heart back into action.
Then he took his son to a basketball tournament and got a close-up lesson in how vital those factors are.
On the last weekend in May, Wahrenberger was one of several people who teamed up to save a 14-year-old boy who collapsed on the court during a game.
“If this had happened in his backyard playing a pickup game,” the doctor said, “the overwhelming likelihood is he would have died.”
Luckily for the young player, the RIM Sports Complex in Hampton, New Hampshire, a coastal town about 50 miles north of Boston, was prepared.
Just a few minutes into the early-morning contest, the boy, whose name was not made public, was handling the ball when he fell backward and was suddenly lifeless. Among the spectators were Wahrenberger and Peter Begin, whose sons played for the other team.
Wahrenberger and the boy’s coach rushed onto the court. Begin, a police officer in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and director of security for a bank there, cleared the players and fans from the gym.
“I don’t think they really knew how bad it was,” Begin said. “Most times you see somebody collapse on the court it’s because they’re dehydrated, or have low blood sugar or concussion symptoms.”
The rescuers quickly knew.
“We found him to be unresponsive and pulseless,” said Wahrenberger, explaining that protocol in such instances is to start CPR, call 911 and locate an automated external defibrillator, or AED.
“The doctor began chest compressions and the coach started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and another parent ran up with the AED on hand at the sports complex,” said Wahrenberger, a longtime volunteer AHA advocate for legislation mandating CPR training in schools.
“This is something that every kid should learn as a life skill,” said the cardiologist, who is on the staff at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.
Begin quickly placed the electrode pads on the boy’s chest to analyze his heart rhythm and recommend the proper response.
“Sometime it will advise you to just continue treatment,” he said. “But it quickly told me to shock him. I told everybody ‘hands off’ and we shocked him.”
Five seconds later they had a pulse. In short order he was talking and grumbling as the emergency crew arrived to take him to a nearby hospital. He was subsequently transferred to Boston Children’s Hospital, where he recovered.
“I understand that he called the coach to see if he could come back to the tournament,” Begin said.
Wahrenberger did not follow the case, but speculated that the boy had an underlying congenital heart issue that led to his heart rhythm problem and cardiac arrest. That made both CPR and the AED crucial.
“The fact that CPR was started immediately and there was an AED on the scene in a minute or two were big factors,” he said. “If this had been someplace where they didn’t have an AED, he might have been resuscitated but he might have been brain-damaged.”
The combination, the cardiologist said, “was an amazing event.”
“I’m around this kind of stuff all the time and you see a coordinated effort among professionals who are used to doing this,” Wahrenberger said. “What I saw was a coordinated effort among a bunch of strangers who came together and did everything just right, in a facility where the owner had an AED. That’s the message of the American Heart Association exactly how it should be.”
According to the Valley News, which covers communities along the New Hampshire-Vermont border, the RIM Sports Complex bought an AED when it opened in 2013 and used it once before, a year and a half ago.
“We should probably put a couple of stars on it,” owner Peter Maher told the newspaper. “It has saved a couple of people’s lives.”