Nineteen-year-old Nathan Santos doesn’t remember anything about the day he died, but his sister, Miliaris, does.
“My mother heard him gasping, saw him struggling for air and called me over. I called 911 and started doing CPR. I could see it in his eyes that he was gone, but that didn’t stop me from believing that he was coming back to me,” Miliaris remembers.
Nathan was in the middle of a cardiac arrest, or abrupt loss of heart function. Miliaris Santos continued CPR for 10 minutes until the arrival of EMS, who then continued to try to restart Nathan’s heart. After about 30 more minutes, Nathan’s heart began pumping again and he was rushed to Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital.
Using an Innovative Technique to Prevent Brain Damage
“Every second counts when it comes to saving the brain. Nathan’s heart was stopped for quite a long period of time, meaning very little oxygenated blood was getting to the brain. We believed the best chance of protecting his brain from damage was to use Targeted Temperature Management, where we cool his core body temperature in an effort to prevent damage from the lack of oxygen to the brain,” says Farrakh Khawaja, MD, the Medical Director of the Intensive Care Unit at Memorial Hermann Southwest.
“I kept putting my hands on his head, praying for his brain. I knew that’s the one thing that could really be damaged,” remembers Miliaris.
After 24 hours, Nathan’s core body temperature was returned to normal and he woke up.
“When they told me what happened, I was of course happy to be alive. But then a minute later I was wondering if something was wrong with me, and what needed to be done to fix it,” says Nathan.
Diagnosed with a Rare, Congenital Heart Condition
Nathan underwent several tests to try and determine what caused his nearly fatal cardiac arrest. Physicians discovered he had a rare, congenital heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome.
“Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) Syndrome is when a person has an extra electrical pathway between the heart’s upper and lower chambers, causing a rapid heartbeat. It’s estimated only one to three people out of every 1,000 have the syndrome; even fewer will experience a cardiac arrest as a side effect. Most times, WPW causes much less extreme symptoms like shortness of breath or dizziness,” says Amir Azeem, MD, a cardiologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute – Southwest.
Cardiac electrophysiologist Sohail Jalal, MD, and Dr. Azeem, corrected Nathan’s condition using a procedure called an ablation.
“An ablation is a minimally invasive, catheter-based procedure that targets the areas of the heart causing the irregular heartbeat. We use radiofrequency energy to remove the abnormal tissue, correcting the rhythm,” explains Dr. Azeem.
Nathan says he recognizes how lucky he is to come out of the scary situation with only minor memory loss.
“For me to come out of this basically unscathed, it’s a miracle. The doctors told me most people would have some brain damage after being dead for 45 minutes, but I’m doing great and I’m back in school. I’m really very grateful to the entire medical staff that saved me,” says Nathan.
Dr. Khawaja says Nathan also should be thankful for his sister who started CPR so quickly.
“When it comes to cardiac arrest, starting effective CPR as quickly as possible is key to a good recovery. We encourage everyone to know how to perform CPR. You’ll never know if you need it for a family member, a friend or even a complete stranger,” says Dr. Khawaja.
Memorial Hermann Heart and Vascular Institute’s team of world-renowned, affiliated cardiologists, cardiovascular surgeons, clinicians, researchers and educators is developing and perfecting innovative techniques that continue to put Memorial Hermann at the forefront of advancing heart health in Houston.