Mike Papale always wanted to be a basketball player. Growing up in Connecticut, he played from the time he was a little kid. As a high school junior in 2006, he was pretty good—so good he was getting looks and recruitment overtures from college coaches.
Papale never had any health issues, and physicals throughout his life had been unremarkable. The summer before his senior year, he was involved in an early-morning basketball workout. “I walked into the gym and began to change my t-shirt,” he recalls. “That was the last thing I remember.”
Papale was sitting on the bench in the gym when he slumped over that August day. Someone quickly called 9-1-1 but mistakenly reported the problem as a broken bone, causing an initial BLS response. The call was soon upgraded to an unresponsive teenager.
A nearby off-duty volunteer firefighter/EMT came running into the gym. There was no AED at the site, but he performed good-quality CPR until the local paramedic unit arrived. Along with other ALS modalities, its crew defibrillated Papale several times. They got him to the hospital with ROSC, but he remained in a coma for several days. Papale eventually regained consciousness and after a battery of test was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM)—a thickness of the septum and apex of the heart.
HCM is the most common cause of heart-related sudden death in people under 30, especially young athletes. It often goes undetected. Those with it have a mortality rate of about 1% a year, though others can have benign presentations, with no or mild symptoms and no risk factors for sudden death.
Every year 1 in every 43,770 U.S. athletes dies from sudden cardiac arrest, and basketball has the highest proportion of deaths: 1 in every 9,000.
A defibrillator was implanted in Papale’s chest, and while most parts of his life resumed, his basketball career was over before it really started. Papale attended Quinnipiac University in Connecticut with the goal of becoming a basketball coach and achieved that for several years as an assistant at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell and then back at Quinnipiac.
In 2014 an infection at the site of his defibrillator implant required Papale to have emergency open heart surgery. After a 12-hour operation he was discharged home for two months with a PICC line running antibiotics and an external defibrillator as a temporary solution until he healed. Once Papale had a new defibrillator implanted and recovered, he decided he wanted to give back to help others in areas beyond basketball. Working with his parents, he founded the In a Heartbeat Foundation, a nonprofit organization with the goal of raising awareness and saving lives from cardiac-related issues, specifically HCM.
The mission statement of the In a Heartbeat Foundation is “to raise awareness of sudden cardiac arrest and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy; donate and provide qualified organizations with automated external defibrillators and assist with the creation of action plans for emergency situations; and support, fund, and advance the research of HCM.”
The In a Heartbeat Foundation looks to donate AEDs and provide CPR training to schools, public safety institutions, departments, and community organizations that have difficulty affording equipment or training. In the beginning the foundation donated primarily to departments and organizations in Connecticut. Now it’s donating throughout the entire United States. More than 100 AEDs have been donated to police departments, fire departments, rescue squads, high schools, houses of worship, community sports groups, universities, and more.
Barry A. Bachenheimer, EdD, FF/EMT, is a frequent contributor to EMS World. He is a career educator and university professor with more than 30 years in EMS and fire suppression. He is currently an EMT with the South Orange (N.J.) Rescue Squad, a firefighter with the Roseland (N.J.) Fire Department, and an instructor at the National Center for Homeland Security and Preparedness in New York. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.