Mike Papale, Wallingford, CT - 17 at time of event (2006)
A normal day that began with a 6am workout, soon turned into a prolonged fight for life. Mike Papale was working at his father’s summer basketball camp in central Connecticut, where he helped coach and shoot baskets to his heart’s content. This particular morning did not go as planned. Around 10am he was taking a rest on the bench when he fell to the floor. His younger brother, John, and a best friend watched in horror. At first, they had thought he was kidding around, or maybe had fainted due to heat exhaustion, but then realized Mike wasn’t breathing.
They didn’t know what to do, and neither did anyone else. Mike’s father was in the gym next door and didn’t know anything was wrong.
Eventually, someone called 911 and within minutes volunteer EMT Bob Heubner received a page from the emergency services operator. He wasn’t on duty, and did not always carry his pager. Luckily, this day he did because he, too, was just next door and decided to check out the call. Bob saw Mike on the floor, unresponsive and turning blue , and collided with the door in his haste to get to him. He knew this was serious and started CPR immediately.
Unfortunately, there was no AED available to shock his heart back into normal rhythm. Bob did not stop the CPR, even after nearly 10 minutes with no sign of the ambulance. “He did it so perfectly,” Mike said of Bob’s performance. “Doctors told me that most people [down for that long] don’t make it.” Mike attributes his survival to “my hero” Bob. “It was one in a million chance,” he said in wonder, since there was no AED and it was so long before he was defibrillated.
After 14 days in intensive care, Mike finally woke up, and underwent a battery of tests; heart catheterization, echocardiogram, a three hour MRI, subsequent biopsies and blood work. He also struggled with memory problems. Eventually, it was determined that he had an underlying heart issue. He was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy*, and received an ICD to protect him from future cardiac arrests. Fortunately, he has not had any further episodes, and goes for regular checkups, including EKGs, to monitor his heart health.
When Mike was younger he occasionally suffered lightheadedness and even fainting spells. One time, when he was three or four years old, he was rushed to the hospital, on his mother’s birthday. Mike had many tests to check for issues with his brain and blood sugar levels, “but no one questioned that it might be my heart.” He not receive an EKG, and yet this test might have revealed the cause of Mike’s SCA, and prevented his cardiac arrest. Only one in twenty survive, and Mike is one of those lucky few.
Mike and his mother, Joan, are now active in the community, raising awareness of SCA and facilitating AED placement in schools and gyms. “The more people hear the story the better. It’s a pretty powerful story.” Mike said in relation to the You Can Save a Life at School campaign. “Kids of all ages can realize how important it is.” He is no stranger to the concept of telling his story in an effort to help save more lives.
“There’s an NBA basketball player from Connecticut, his name is Ryan Gomes. He started a heart foundation and I’ve worked with him a lot.” Mike said with pride. “He is a celebrity, and gets all these people there [awareness dinner events], but I go up and tell my story.”
“The high school I went to now has four AEDs, and every school in our town has a least one,” Mike said of his mother’s efforts. “We thought of asking each school to have CPR as a requirement for graduation.”
* Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) is a disease (often genetic in origin) that causes thickening of the heart muscle, and is a leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes.