Summer Break Nearly Broken

Joan Papale, Wallingford, CT - son Mike Papale was 17 at time of event (2006)

Like many school teachers, Joan Papale was busy preparing for the next years classes during the summer break. All her boys were at their Hoop House basketball camp down the road, and Joan was surprised when her husband called for the third time that morning. This time it was “a very different voice. A hysterical, frightened, panicked voice informing me that my son had passed out and that it did not look good and that I’d better come.” Joan was concerned by his tone, but remembered that her son had a history of dizzy spells, usually attributed to low blood sugar. She had taken him to Boston Children's Hospital and even had genetic testing done at Yale.

As she drove towards the recreation center she saw an ambulance racing towards her, with her husband in the front seat. “I knew it was bad because when Mike was three and had to be taken to the hospital they let us sit in back with him. So they were obviously working on him.” Joan immediately followed the ambulance to the hospital, and was there when they carried him out. “He was attached to a ventilator and completely unresponsive.” She couldn’t recognize her husband, he was so distraught and emotional. Inside the ER “there were easily 10 people working on him, in this small room.”

A social worker consoled Joan, since the prognosis was not promising. Mike “crashed” again and Joan saw him being defibrillated, but she still didn’t know what was wrong with him. Joan realized her husband was traumatized by the episode and, after calling the family to have them come over, she paced the corridors and saying affirmations, hoping to send Mike the energy to survive.

“It is all a blur, but I remember having to back out [of the room] and jump on a gurney because I was going to pass out,” Joan said with stoicism. The doctors advised sending Mike to another hospital, to which Joan replied, ”Just keep him alive. Whatever you say, we’ll do!”

There was talk of using LifeStar, the Hartford Hospital's Critical Care Helicopter Service. But then a special ambulance for cardiac patients arrived from Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, since Mike was only 17 years old.

“I sat in front while at least four doctors, with big machines, worked on him.” Joan said. She also recalled being told that he would need to be paralyzed, although no one had yet said what was wrong with Mike. “We then spent 14 days in ICU with him, listening to all those machines going ‘beep beep beep’, and the ventilator, wondering if he was going to live.”

Eventually the cardiologist informed them that it was Mike’s heart that was faulty. “We both began to cry, because we’re thinking ‘His heart?’ We’d taken him to every checkup, I’d stayed home for ten years and watched over him so carefully.” Joan said plaintively. She now feels strongly that preventative screening is important to identify children at risk.

“The sad thing about all this is that the Rec department didn’t have an AED,and the [witnesses] froze.” Joan said with a frankness born of tireless campaigning for AED and CPR programs. She has been instrumental in making Wallingford a HeartSafe community. When talking about her dedication to raising the awareness of SCA, and their lucky escape from a potentially tragic loss, Joan said, “sometimes it takes multiple instances before something is done. I’m a very goal-oriented individual that will not let things rest. So [I’m] a cheerleader for the heart. It will be a lifelong odyssey for me. I do not want to see another child drop!”

It is sometimes hard to convey the shock of life’s fragility, but Joan had no trouble expressing herself. “My life changed in a moment, and it will never be the same.”

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