Saving Kaitlin

Saving Kaitlin

When a student suffered sudden cardiac arrest, a small-town high school refused to let her die.

On May 11, 2005, an alarm clock that had been ticking silently for five years went off at a high school in Rhinebeck, N.Y. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and warm, and 15-year-old Kaitlin Forbes was playing co-ed softball. Over the past eight months, her sophomore P.E. class—the “randomest” mix in the beginning, Kaitlin says—had become “so close it was, like, ridiculous.” They had nicknames for each other, and despite her delicate face and long, sweetly girlish hair, Kaitlin had been dubbed Carl. She’d been doodling on her hand in art class a few minutes before, and there she’d written the lyrics of a song that would mislead the paramedics who would shortly be called: I need the high to get me through the ever after.

Kaitlin gripped the bat and stepped up to the plate. She had a lingering cough and dizziness from a spring cold, but she’d come to school an hour early that morning, as usual, to practice batting with a friend on this same field. An avid athlete, she played varsity softball, volleyball and basketball, and she went to UConn basketball camp every summer.

Kaitlin nailed the ball, as usual, and it flew past the shortstop to the bright-green leafy ever after.

She ran, but she felt so odd. “I don’t feel good,” she told Dylan Alben as she rounded first. Then everyone saw her fall.

“I was a jokester in that class,” Kaitlin says. “They thought I was joking until I turned blue.”

Kaitlin had lost consciousness because her heart had stopped beating. It was quivering erratically, a useless trembling called ventricular fibrillation. Roughly 95 percent of all sudden cardiac arrest victims in America—including those who, like Kaitlin, are young and healthy—are not revived quickly enough, and they die.

But Kaitlin’s gym teacher, Ron Keefe, saw almost immediately that she wasn’t joking, nor had she simply fainted. He did the first four things that saved Kaitlin’s life: He told her classmate Thomas McCormack to bring the AED, an automated external defibrillator that was stored like a fire extinguisher in a glass case by the gym door. He told another student, Matt DeIulio, to have the school secretary call 9-1-1. He sent Dylan Alben to get Bonnie Murphy, the school nurse. Then he started doing CPR on Kaitlin.

Football coach and P.E. teacher Mike Piccione was not usually on the field at that hour. “Normally I let the kids set up,” he says, but on that particular day he’d decided to set up the cones himself. The first sign of trouble was Thomas McCormack sprinting toward the gym with a scared look on his face.

“I saw Ron Keefe behind him, looking like he’s doing CPR on a kid, and I was like, holy Jesus.”

Piccione ran past Thomas McCormack. When he reached Kaitlin, she was purple, and she had no pulse. The breaths she took were far apart and strange, the telltale gasps of something called agonal breathing. Then Kaitlin stopped breathing altogether.

Mission & Vision

The mission of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) Foundation is to prevent death and disability from sudden cardiac arrest. The vision of the SCA Foundation is to increase awareness about sudden cardiac arrest and influence attitudinal and behavioral changes that will reduce mortality and morbidity from SCA.

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