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After almost losing his life to a cardiac event, Nick Atterberry is in the midst of a major life adjustment. Two heart specialists say Atterberry is lucky to be in that position.
In fact, short of resuming competitive sports immediately, Atterberry represents a best-case scenario.
"His chances were nil if not for the response there was to help him," said Dr. Cecilia Albaro, a pediatric cardiologist at Children's Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria. "With kids who have sudden cardiac events, there's a whole range of what the outcomes can be. But the day I met him (at the hospital), he was sitting up in bed, playing video games with his brother."
Atterberry, who will be a senior at PORTA High School in Petersburg this fall, experienced ventricular fibrillation - a sudden irregular heartbeat - while playing in a basketball game on June 7 at Monmouth College.
Thanks to a group of first responders who performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation and used an automated external defibrillator to shock Atterberry's heart back into rhythm, Albaro said Atterberry's case is classified as an "aborted sudden cardiac death."
Albaro and Dr. Marc Knepp, another pediatric cardiologist at Children's Hospital of Illinois, both said the availability of an AED - and people who knew how to use it - was the bottom line in Atterberry's survival. A state law that took effect this month requires high school students to learn CPR and how to operate an AED.
But the AED, which gathers important data once its pads are applied to a victim's body, told an additional part of the story. The CPR applied to Atterberry was important in supplying blood to his brain before his heart resumed functioning.
"We were able to analyze what was on the AED," Albaro said. "It's almost like a black box. It showed the chest compressions. The fact that there was no neurological impact speaks to the high quality of the CPR."
Knepp, referring to the wide range of outcomes in such situations, said Atterberry's case is at the high end.
"That's why high-quality CPR and AEDs at sports events are so important," Knepp said. "The first responders were fantastic. If not, there could have been a poor outcome.
"Either (a victim) doesn't survive or has neurological damage.," he said. "They don't talk well, or they have mental or physical setbacks."
Regarding the out-of-the-blue nature of Atterberry's episode, Knepp said junior high and high school athletes in Illinois undergo physicals and screenings before they are cleared to participate.
"A lot of times on screening exams, you can pick up the higher-risk patients," Knepp said. "But in some cases, and Nick is one, even with the best screening, you couldn't pick up that there was a problem.
"He passed all the testing to be able to play sports in the state of Illinois."
Atterberry now has a surgically implanted defibrillator that would provide an electrical shock to the heart if it went into ventricular fibrillation again.
His left arm is in a sling for the time being, keeping him from raising the arm above the shoulder so the lead wire from the defibrillator to his heart stays in place. An Illinois law also keeps him from driving for six months.
The defibrillator monitors heart activity that can be analyzed by cardiologists, who will see Atterberry for a follow-up visit on Thursday. The family then expects a better picture of what Nick can and cannot do in the immediate future, which should include a mission trip the Atterberrys will take part in at the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota beginning Saturday.
For now, Nick doesn't expect to be able to play football or basketball, although baseball is an outside possibility next spring.
But even if he can't play for the Bluejays this coming school year, Nick wants to be a team member in any way he can.
"I've told Nick, 'You're a part of this team,' " said football coach Rich McMahan. "As far as I'm concerned, you're an injured player, and you're going to be on the sidelines in your jersey on Friday nights.
"'You'll be just as much a part of this team as if you were the starting quarterback.' "
Even if he can't compete athletically as a high school senior, Nick is looking for future options.
"I think there are things I can ease my way into," he said. "I've heard of people with defibrillators who run marathons and stuff like that."
There's something else Nick wants to do in his spare time: spread the word about AEDs and their lifesaving capabilities.
"I don't know what I'll major in," he said of college. "But I'd like to speak about defibrillators. I want to make people aware."
Contact Dave Kane: 788-1544, email@example.com, twitter.com/DaveKaneSJR.