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New Life Chapter for Jacob Johnson

Jacob Johnson, a 15-year-old freshman at Piedmont High, is pictured with his mother, Linda Johnson.

When Jacob Johnson walked through the doors of Piedmont High School on Monday, August 27, he began a new chapter in his life as a high school freshman. But had it not been for the quick actions of his middle school coach and the school nurse last May, this new chapter may never have been written.

“I don’t remember anything about that entire day,” Jacob said of May 24, 2012, when at the age of 14, his heart stopped beating while in PE at Piedmont Middle School.

One of Jacob’s classmates told the school’s coach, Mike Shepperd, that Jacob had a blank expression on his face and then fell. Originally, the students thought he had tripped over a student who had leaned down to tie his shoe.

But upon closer examination, the coach could tell it was much more serious. The other students were sent inside, and 22-year veteran nurse Debora Carpenter (a school nurse since 2008) was immediately summoned. When she found no heartbeat or pulse, she went into “automatic pilot.”

“As soon as I got out there and didn’t feel a pulse, I told them to call 911,” she said. “Then we started CPR. Then they brought the AED out there to us.”

Carpenter and Coach Shepperd continued CPR for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the Emergency Medical Service paramedics arrived. The teamwork between Shepperd and Carpenter was a crucial component to Jacob’s survival. “The teamwork was amazing,” Carpenter said. “I think that makes a difference. He knew what to do and we worked together.”

One would think those 15 or 20 minutes would seem like an eternity; but not for Carpenter. “It went by fast,” she said.

Carpenter used an AED to shock Jacob’s heart at the school. Then paramedics shocked his heart again en route to the hospital. An automated external defibrillator or AED is a portable electronic device that automatically diagnoses a potentially life threatening condition when someone suffers a heart attack or as in Jacob's case, sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) when the top part of his heart stopped pumping causing his heart to stop. The AED uses electrical therapy to reestablish an effective heart rhythm.

Jacob’s mother, Linda Johnson, was called to the school and saw what no mother should ever have to witness. “When I pulled up at the school, I saw them working on him,” she said. “I thought he was gone. They airlifted him from Monroe to the Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte.”

Carpenter said it wasn’t until she saw Jacob being driven off in the ambulance that she could think about the enormity of what she had just experienced. “When EMS got there, and Jacob was in the back of the ambulance, and I saw them doing all their procedural things, I knew they were trying to save his life. It was overwhelming.”

Doctors have subsequently told Linda that Jacob was probably a little dehydrated because of stomach virus that he had that week. “It was a combination of that, it was hot that morning when they first went out and he had been stressed because of his science exam,” Linda said.

Once Jacob got to the hospital, he was placed in a medical coma, intubated and his body’s temperature lowered, all to minimize possible damage to his brain.

Linda remembers the moment she knew he was going to be okay. She and her husband, Harold, were coming back from a short dinner break, when she saw several doctors standing outside his room. She panicked, but breathed a huge sigh of relief when they told her, “There’s someone here who wants to talk to you.”

“He came to and pulled the intubation tube out,” Linda said, smiling. “He was able to answer most of the doctors’ questions, but he had some short-term memory issues. But each day he improved. Every day he got better and better. And it’s all because (Shepperd and Carpenter) reacted so quickly. Seconds can mean life or death.”

It took Jacob a few days for the fog to clear, and each time he woke up from resting he had to be reminded why he was in the hospital. “I was just really confused when ever I woke up,” he said.

The family is very thankful that Jacob was at school with people who could take care of the situation when the SCA occurred. “I just want to thank God for placing the right people in the right place and the right time,” said Jacob’s father, Harold Johnson. “If He had not, we would have lost our son.”

Jacob was in the hospital about a week before being released to go home. Doctors were relieved to find that the SCA caused no permanent damage.

Looking back, Carpenter says her training helped her to keep composure. “I never got upset,” she said. “You know what you’re supposed to do and you do the best you can to make sure it’s done the way it’s supposed to be done. You just do the best you can. You do what you instinctively know you’re supposed to do.”

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

Jacob was diagnosed three years ago with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a condition in which the heart muscle becomes thick, which can make it harder for blood to leave the heart, forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood. It also can make it harder for the heart to relax and fill with blood.

Jacob now has an AICD defibrillator. “It bothered me at first, because it kind of felt awkward, but it doesn’t bother me any more,” he said. “It’s just really weird. I don’t really think about it, unless someone asks me about it.”

An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (AICD) is a device that is implanted in the chest to monitor for and, if necessary, correct episodes of rapid heartbeat. If the heartbeat gets too fast (ventricular tachycardia), the AICD will stimulate the heart to restore a normal rhythm (anti-tachycardia pacing).

“It’s the neatest thing,” Linda said. “It’s a tiny little mini computer. And it has a pacemaker and a defibrillator in there. They’re tiny enough that they can fit into the muscle.”

The AICD has given Jacob a bit more freedom to push himself a bit harder. “I’m just thankful,” he said. “I can participate in sports more now.”

“He can do a little bit more now than he could before because he’s protected, but we still want to prevent it from happening,” Linda said. “But if it does, he’s got the pacer in there that will pace out if the heart gets out of rhythm. It will keep it in rhythm.”

Being a mom, Linda would have preferred to keep Jacob at home for this school year, but Jacob would have none of it. He said he is a little nervous about starting high school, but for all the normal reasons – getting to know a new campus, making new friends and being in a high school environment.

“You have a lot more freedom in high school, but it seems bigger and harder,” he said. “And the grades count more toward your future. But you do get to pick your classes more instead of going to the same ones all the time.”

Linda said she has been just a bit more affectionate with her son than usual, but she makes no apologies. “Once you go through something like that, to know he was gone, but to then have him back, you know you’re going to kiss him a lot. And I’m constantly saying, ‘Be careful.’ It has been a challenge not being overprotective. That’s why I’m dealing with him going to school.”

The critical lesson in all of this, Carpenter says, is that there needs to be plenty of people trained in CPR and AED use at a school. “We have one person per grade level and we try to keep the PE teachers trained. That’s a good way to do it, because not all of the PE teachers are on the field at the same time.”

Carpenter continues to carry a photo of Jacob in her wallet. “It’s to remind me of how positively things can turn out,” she said. “Every time I see him, I tell him he’s my miracle student. For him to be able to be where he’s at now and not have complications (from the SCA) is amazing.”

Jacob is thinking about his future, with one possible career choice being web design or a software engineer, which would allow him to be a game programmer. He continues to have a close bond with Shepperd and Carpenter. “I just thank Coach and Ms. Carpenter. I am so glad that they were there and knew what to do.”

As for his advice to other students with medical conditions, Jacob said attitude is everything. “Never give up,” he said. “Keep your head up. Don’t let it bring you down.”

Good advice from a very strong young man who has experienced a lot for such a young age.

What’s he most looking forward to his freshman year at Piedmont High School? “Driver’s ed,” he said, his face lighting up with anticipation.

If Linda is like most mothers whose teenagers are learning to drive, it will be her heart that skips a few beats from now on.

Written by: Deb Coates Bledsoe, UCPS Communications Coordinator
Posted: Sep 05, 2012 by Donna Helms

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