Penn Heart and Vascular

Penn Heart and Vascular Update

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Saved From Sudden Cardiac Arrest With Therapeutic Hypothermia

Zach Conrad: The Right Place. The Right Time.

Sometimes the balance between life and death hangs on being in the right place at the right time. Zach Conrad learned that firsthand on June 3, 2012, when he collapsed without warning during a leisurely bike ride.

Zach, a 36-year-old finance manager, had just suffered sudden cardiac arrest – an abrupt loss of blood flow caused by a disruption in his heart’s normal pump function. Luckily for Zach, an ER nurse was nearby when he collapsed. He was at the right place at the right time – when he needed help to save his life.

The nurse kept Zach alive long enough to be rushed to a local hospital where he met his wife. Zach’s wife, a doctor, reached out to her colleagues in the medical field to learn about the options for Zach’s care. They told her to go to Penn Medicine’s Hypothermia Treatment Center.

The Hypothermia Treatment Center provides a cutting-edge procedure—available at only select hospitals in the Philadelphia region—which helps protect and improve neurologic function in patients who suffer from cardiac arrest.

"I learned that hypothermia treatment is very helpful when you’re recovering from cardiac arrest—if you can get there within a short amount of time," Zach explains. "I feel lucky that this happened in Philadelphia, near Penn, and that I was able to get there in the window of time one needs for hypothermia treatment to be effective."

Staying Cool to Save Your Life

At Penn, Zach was placed in the care of Dr. Benjamin Abella, clinical research director at the Penn Center for Resuscitation Science, and a leader in the field of hypothermia treatment. Zach was put into a medically induced coma, and his body was cooled about 10 degrees for 24 hours. He was kept in a coma for a week as his body temperature was returned to normal. "I was feeling great pretty much as soon as I woke up," he says. Zach spent another week in the hospital "getting his bearings"–he thought it was 2010 and initially couldn’t remember events like his wedding, which had taken place two months prior. "The recovery process takes a little time,” Zach explains. “I had great nurses, great staff helping me."

Unsure of what caused his cardiac arrest, his cardiologist, Dr. David Frankel, suggested he have a defibrillator implanted in his chest to shock his heart if it ever stopped again. "At Penn, I always felt as though the doctors had a great understanding of what was going on and that the advice I was getting was the best possible," he says. "There was a complete continuum of care from the moment I checked in to the moment I checked out."

Back on the Bike - Another Chance at Life

A month after leaving the hospital, Zach had regained most of his strength, and within a few months, he was back on his bike and traveling again. "I’ve been to Asia. We’ve been to Africa," he says. "And the defibrillator has gone everywhere with me. It’s my new best friend." Zach has even started training again for triathlons—which he stopped doing in the years leading up to his cardiac event. "My cardiologist has given me the green light to push as hard as I want. I feel like I’m living a fuller life than if this had never happened."

Looking back on his wife’s quick decision to send him to Penn for hypothermia treatment, Zach says he feels fortunate. "Dr. Abella and his team are fantastic. I now have a much better appreciation for just how advanced they are at Penn and how much he has done to push this field forward," he says. "From what I can tell, they are among the best in the world and to be here is really just one of the many miracles in my story."

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