Liz Pearlman, Aurora, IL – 20 at time of event (2009)
What would you like for your 21st birthday? How about a wearable defibrillator? Liz had to wear one for three months, think of a bullet-proof vest, add a battery and you get the idea. Why would she need or even want that?
A few weeks earlier, she had been practicing for the varsity basketball team and doing a “circle of life” sprinting exercise to earn her jersey. She had five seconds to go and suffered a cardiac arrest.
“I was on my back and Terry Smith [the athletic trainer] said ‘Get up!’ Then he saw my eyes roll into the back of my head. He immediately started CPR,” Liz said. “And, he called for an ambulance and an AED, which we had right outside our gym.”
The AED was used twice, and when the paramedics arrived they strapped her to a board and took her to the ambulance. At this point Liz began coughing up blood. She also regained consciousness.
“I knew I was in an ambulance, but couldn’t work out why,”Liz recalled. “I knew it wasn’t a dream.”
She was able to answer the paramedic’s questions, designed to determine neurological functions, but was concerned about what was happening to her.
“I told them I really needed to talk to my Dad,” Liz said with emotion. “They said ‘Oh honey, he's on his way.’ But I kept saying, ‘No, no this is really important!” She even gave them his cell number to call immediately! They sedated her instead and once she was stabilized headed off to the hospital.
Meanwhile Liz’s father had received a call to inform him that she had collapsed at practice.
“He said ‘Well, tell her to get up!’ You know—I’d fallen before, and been injured before so he’s saying ‘I’m kinda busy right now.’ The athletic trainer said [to him] ‘No, this is really important you need to come now! She’s not responding,’ " Liz explained.
It was rush hour and he needed to get through Chicago city traffic and then 45 minutes on the expressway to the University. When Liz woke the next day she could hear and feel her parents, they were touching her hands and talking to her, but she could not speak or move, not even able to open her eyes. She desperately tried to acknowledge them, but with the neck brace all Liz managed was to shake her head side to side, causing the nurses to think she was having a seizure.
“I was trying to say ‘I’m here, I’m here. I just can’t open my eyes, I can’t speak!’ ” Liz said.
The next time Liz woke she did something special, she began sign language with her sister. Her hands were tied down but she was able to move her fingers.
“I told my sister that I loved her. When I did that he [her father] knew my brains were all there,” Liz said with relief.
“I was released on [the following] Friday and went home for the weekend. I went right back to school that Monday,” Liz said with determination. “I just wanted things to go back to normal as soon as possible.”
However, Liz was required to wear an external defibrillator, until they could be sure of the cause of her cardiac arrest. November 18th, her 21st birthday, and she has to wear this bulky vest and a battery slung over her shoulder to the restaurant. Everyone was looking, and not because it was her birthday! On New Year’s eve she underwent an EP study.
“I went in hoping it was a one-time freak accident, and that I’d be able to go back to basketball,” Liz said. However, her heart faltered almost immediately, and the electrophysiologist started explaining what he had found, “But I already knew my life was forever changed.”
New Year’s day Liz was in a hospital bed listening to the fireworks, in pain and feeling depressed and lonely. Several months later she was feeling worse. She had decided to play a little basketball, despite being advised to tone down the sports activity, and her ICD went off.
“I had that weird feeling again. I bent over to try and stop it, and held my chest,” Liz said seriously. “In a quick second I flew on my butt! It happened so quickly.”
Another pickup game of basketball in the summer saw Liz keel over and get her second shock of the year. She eventually found the cause. Genetic screening showed the marker for ARVD*, and her brother and father also have it.
They are also under the care of a cardiologist and are being careful, at this stage without incident.
*Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia/Cardiomyopathy is a leading cause of sudden death among young athletes, although the condition can affect people of all ages and activity levels. Approximately one out of every 5,000 individuals is diagnosed with ARVD/C.