Beating the odds after sudden cardiac arrest – and making a difference
Right up until the moment Omar Carter’s heart stopped beating, his day had seemed like any other. The 25-year-old semi-pro basketball player had completed a grueling morning workout, then returned to the court later that day to play in a game. He had been feeling fatigued, but Omar chalked it up to his intensive efforts to catch the eye of an NBA scout.
“It never occurred to me that being tired was a sign that something might be wrong,” he says. “I just said, ‘I’ll push through it.’”
Much was on the line for Omar. He’d been playing basketball since childhood, perfecting his game throughout high school and college, plus two seasons playing overseas. Now, in the off-season, he was training hard in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina and generating buzz; a swirl of agents, mentors and coaches were all working to help make his dreams come true. Omar hoped that with a lot of work and a little luck, he might soon follow in the footsteps of his high school teammate and lifelong friend Stephen Curry, who had already gone to the NBA.
On that day in 2013, Omar shook off his exhaustion and suited up for a Pro-Am game at Charlotte’s Grady Cole Center. He ran down the court on a fast break and bounce-passed the ball to a teammate. Then he took a single faltering step backwards -- and instantly fell onto his back, seemingly lifeless.
Omar wasn’t breathing. He had no pulse. He was in the throes of sudden cardiac arrest – a condition usually so fatal that it results in sudden cardiac death.
What is sudden cardiac arrest?
Sudden cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack. A heart attack is typically caused by clogged arteries that reduce blood flow to the heart, resulting in a range of outcomes: Though someone can certainly die of a heart attack (the mortality rate is about 12.4%), in about 20% of cases the attacks are mild enough as to go undetected. By contrast, sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is a rare and catastrophic event that kills nearly 90% of people it strikes. It occurs when the heart’s electrical activity becomes suddenly faulty or erratic, causing the heart to stop beating in any meaningful way. Without any blood flow within the body, the victim falls instantly unconscious.
The only hope for survival is immediate intervention. But because SCA happens so quickly, and typically without warning, treatment usually arrives too late. About 350,000 people in the US die each year of sudden cardiac arrest. Risk factors include:
- Heart disease. Having a heart condition, such as an irregular rhythm (arrhythmia), is the single biggest risk factor for SCA.
- Race. Studies have found Blacks are twice as likely to suffer sudden cardiac arrest as Caucasians.
- Gender. Men make up more than 60% of occurrences.
Omar had all of those risk factors, including an undetected heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Also called an “enlarged heart,” his heart muscle had thickened to the point where it was difficult to pump blood, setting the stage for his sudden cardiac arrest. However, Omar was exceedingly lucky. He was among the tiny minority of SCA survivors -- thanks, in part, to fast-acting bystanders.
Overcoming the odds
For 13 long minutes Omar lay unconscious on the gymnasium floor while onlookers frantically called 911 and a bystander administered CPR. Eventually someone was able to locate an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), which a bystander used to deliver an electrical shock that restarted Omar’s heartbeat. Rushed to the hospital, Omar spent three days in a medically induced coma, on life support, while his mother and grandmother prayed by his bedside. On the third day, he awoke at last – groggy and weak, but alive.
Because experiencing sudden cardiac arrest put Omar at high risk for another, doctors would implant into his chest an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, the EMBLEM™ MRI S-ICD System. The small, computerized device detects any dangerous heart rhythms and corrects them by sending an electrical pulse to the heart to reset its normal rhythm. The device would give Omar tremendous peace of mind. “In the beginning, you think, is this going to happen again? I was nervous, I was scared. But the ICD is like an insurance policy,” he says today. “To be honest, now that I’ve had it for ten years, I forget that it’s even there.”
In his hospital bed, Omar felt grateful to be alive. At the same time, he grieved for the future that had been snatched away – because, as his surgeon informed him, the risks of playing basketball were too great. Omar was devastated that his basketball career was over. But a new life was about to take shape.
A big heart for a big cause
“I saw there was work to be done around awareness about SCA and heart disease,” remembers Omar. Partnering with his surgeon, he soon launched a nonprofit, the Omar Carter Foundation, which helps young athletes and adults be prepared to intervene in the event of a cardiac emergency. Working closely with sports teams, youth-serving organizations and health equity organizations like Close the Gap, the foundation encourages preventative cardiovascular health screenings; educates kids about healthy lifestyle choices; and, importantly, teaches them how to administer CPR and use an AED. The foundation also works to provide AEDs to communities that lack them.
“We want to make sure people can locate an AED and feel comfortable being able to use them,” says Omar. Now in its ninth year of existence, the Omar Carter Foundation aims to educate one million people to administer emergency cardiac care. The recent sudden cardiac arrest of NFL safety Damar Hamlin on live television has only reaffirmed Omar’s commitment to his mission.
“Watching the video of his collapse, it brought up some stuff. I couldn’t sleep that night,” admits Omar. “But it’s a reminder of why the foundation is so important. It’s a way for me to cope, to tell my story, and to stay on track teaching those life-saving techniques.”
Learn more about sudden cardiac arrest causes, symptoms and treatment.