At the end of October, Brad Phelps joined an indoor soccer league, looking forward to meeting new friends. When the then-22-year-old took the field for his first match, his knees buckled and he fell to the ground — his heart had stopped.
“I essentially collapsed in some type of cardiac episode,” Phelps, 23, from the Morristown area of New Jersey, told TODAY. “I don’t even remember going to soccer. My memory has a gap.”
For 12 minutes, his heart didn't beat. His teammates called 911 and, when officers came, they performed CPR. Still, they couldn’t revive him. When an ambulance finally arrived, paramedics shocked him with a defibrillator, which restarted his heart.
After he was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, doctors worried Phelps had already suffered brain damage.
“The job of the blood is to take oxygen to the vital organs and the most vital of theses is the brain,” Dr. Umesh Gidwani, chief of Cardiac Critical Care for The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, told TODAY. “(There is an) oxygen debt if you have cardiac arrest for a certain period of time.”
In hopes to stop further damage to Phelps’ injured brain, Gidwani decided to use a cooling technique called therapeutic hypothermia. For 24 hours, his body temperature was lowered to about 91.4 degrees, from the normal range of 98.6 degrees. The lowered temperature slows the brain, which can halt brain damage.
Gidwani believed it was the best hope for Phelps, who had graduated from college in May and started his first job as a civilian scientist with the military.
“The only treatment that seems to have some benefit to the body is effectively cooling the brain,” Gidwani explained. “It improves your chances of preserving the brain and recovering brain function and this is especially important the younger you are.”
Cooling has been known to help people who experience cognitive problems, and research has shown it can help people prevent brain injury after cardiac arrest, but Phelps’ doctors were stunned by how well he was doing when he woke up. Days after his cardiac arrest, he was walking with assistance and talking with little evidence of cognitive problems. He simply forgot what happened in the few days prior.
“He is doing remarkably well,” Gidwani said. “The trajectory of the improvements suggest that if there are any cognitive deficits, they would be so minimal.”
It’s uncommon for twenty-somethings to die from cardiac arrest — which is not a blood-flow blockage like a heart attack, but a malfunction in the heart’s electrical system that causes it to stop pumping blood and can quickly cause death, according to the American Heart Association. But, it's more likely to happen to people like Phelps, who has been living with a heart condition.
When he was 5, Phelps developed Kawasaki disease, a childhood cardiac illness. For about a week, children with the disease experience a variety of symptoms, including fever, rash, swollen hands and feet, irritated eyes, swollen neck lymph nodes and inflammation of the mouth, lips and throat.
While most symptoms pass quickly, those affected can experience lifelong cardiac problems and are encouraged to continue seeing a cardiologist. Throughout his childhood and teen years, Phelps had stress tests and took blood thinners under the care of a pediatric cardiologist.
But, he had no lingering symptoms and has been otherwise healthy. Phelps enjoys running and bike riding and lives an active life.
“I’ve been in pretty good cardiovascular shape,” he said. “I wasn’t really off in terms of health at all.”
He and his family thought he was safe because he could exercise without problems. And doctors always remarked on how well Phelps performed on his stress tests.
“I took that as a really positive sign that there wasn’t much of a risk of anything happening,” mom Sharon Phelps told TODAY. “Doctors would always be amazed at how long and how hard Brad could run and not have any negative effects from it.”
Since starting his job, Phelps had not visited a cardiologist. Many adults who had childhood cardiac illness, but have not had any further symptoms, believe they’ve been cured, according to Dr. Ali Zaidi, system director of The Mount Sinai Adult Congenital Heart Disease Center.
“It is very common,” he told TODAY. “They feel good, so they kind of think maybe they’re better or that it's all taken care of or it’s over.”
Zaidi said doctors need to do a better job of explaining to the nearly two million adults who had childhood cardiac illness that they need to continue heart care throughout their lives.
“It’s really not the patients’ fault,” Zaidi said. “We need to educate these patients to know that they need to have the appropriate follow up.”
Phelps said the episode reminded him to keep up his heart care and he wants others with lifelong heart conditions to seek appropriate screenings and care – even when they feel healthy.
“We were not taking care of the condition because we got so many positive reports,” he said. “ It becomes less of a straightforward priority. I’ve learned how important it is to keep constantly monitoring.”