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Shock to the Heart


Vikki Stringham/Lafayette Christian School

Jenna Brown, center, is carried by friends Angelina Cipolla, left, and Dorothy Baum during a school pep rally. Less than a minute later, Brown collapsed with cardiac arrest.

LAGRANGE — I looked hard at the picture of my youngest daughter, looking for a sign of what happened just seconds after it was taken. All I saw was a smiling 14-year-old, blue eyes flashing, pink cheeks shining, arms around good friends during the school pep rally.

There was no hint of what was to come.

. . . . .

It was a big day at Lafayette Christian School – the first time that homecoming would be celebrated on a football field. Almost 300 students gathered in the gym, along with parents, grandparents, and teachers to cheer on the team. The lower school students were dismissed at 3 p.m. and the upper school students were still competing on the basketball court in a game of Ships and Sailors – renamed Cougars and Lions in honor of the upcoming homecoming game.

My daughter Jenna was in the thick of it, running, laughing, jumping on the court. A teacher, taking photos for the yearbook, snapped her picture with two friends carrying her in an attempt to win the game. They were called “out” just seconds later. All three headed for seats in the bleachers.

Jenna started to sit on the bottom bleacher. She didn’t stumble, she didn’t cry out. As she sat, she missed the seat and kept going until she landed face-down on the floor. At first, those sitting nearby thought she was clowning around, but when she didn’t move or respond to their comments, a parent stepped in to see what happened.

LCS parent Stacy Carmichael turned her over. Jenna’s skin was gray and her lips were blue. Something was very wrong.

Joan Love had traveled from Louisiana to see her grandson, Zach Brown, play football that night. She was just a few feet away when she caught sight of Jenna’s face. Love, a nurse for 37 years, knew immediately what she needed to do.

She shook Jenna, called her name, and when there was no response and no sign of a pulse, she began chest compressions, knowing that the most important thing to do was circulate blood to her brain.

A student ran into the nearby cafeteria to find LCS property manager Julie Spears, also a nurse. Spears joined Love, breathing for my child via CPR. It was more difficult for her than for Love, because Spears had known Jenna for more than 12 years.

At the same time, Jonny Marshall, a 16-year-old student, pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. Stewart Smith, Troup County 911 senior communications officer, answered the call at the 911 center.

Smith and Marshall both attend church with my family. When Smith identified himself, Marshall told him it was Jenna Brown who had “fainted.” Smith didn’t know details, but he did know that Jenna had a cardiac history. He sent out the call, “Lafayette Christian School … CPR in progress … 14-year-old with cardiac history.”

It was 3:05.

. . . . .

The students were stunned and frightened when they saw their classmate receiving CPR. A teacher directed them out the gym door. They easily could have headed for the parking lot and left school, but none did. Instead, while teachers and parents cared for Jenna and also for Chelsea, her 16-year-old sister who witnessed the event, the students headed for the soccer field where they circled the field and began to pray.

Some knelt. Some stood. Some cried. Some comforted others. They all prayed long after dismissal time, long after Jenna was taken to the hospital.

One mother headed up to the field to check on them and when she rounded the corner, heard a “roar of prayer.” That night the school canceled all homecoming activities except the football game. Cheerleaders made a new sign to hang on the fence: Play for Jenna.

. . . . .

Next door to the school, LaGrange police officer Cpl. Greg Civers was handling a call at the BP gas station. LPD drug investigator Hilton Swanson had arrived, waiting for Civers to give information on another case. Civers heard the call about an LCS student and, knowing he was closer than any ambulance, headed for his patrol car, calling for Swanson to follow him.

Getting out of the gas station just after 3 p.m. was a challenge. Students leaving nearby Troup High School and parents heading out with lower school students from Lafayette Christian School were clogging the roads. Civers drove across the curb and headed into the school parking lot. With a portable automated external defibrillator in hand, he jumped a 3-foot railing – he’s still not sure how he managed that – and ran into the gym. Swanson was right behind him.

Civers had taken the AED training every year, but he had never used one on a “real person” – using it on a child made it even more difficult. He was shaky, but he knew what to do. He put the pads on Jenna, hooking her up to the machine that could shock a heart back into a regular rhythm.

But it didn’t shock her. The AED indicated that she needed continued CPR, but the device wouldn’t shock her.

Frustrated, both Love and Spears continued CPR. It was 12 minutes from the 911 call until the ambulance arrived. By that time, although Jenna was still unconscious, she was gasping for breath.

. . . . .

Sherri Brown/Index

Jenna Brown, 14, was able to return to school full-time – and get her braces off – just four weeks after cardiac arrest and open-heart surgery.

My daughter was born with a congenital heart defect, Ebstein’s Anomaly, a defect that occurs in less than one-half percent of all heart defects. She had surgery in 2000 to close a hole in her heart and also take care of an extra electrical connection in her heart.

It didn’t fix everything. Her tricuspid valve was displaced and, because of that, her heart was enlarged. Every year we spent a day in Atlanta to meet with her cardiologist. In July, they looked at her a little more closely than usual.

In the past two years, Jenna had developed severe scoliosis and in June her orthopedic doctor decided we couldn’t wait any longer for surgery. She was cleared for surgery by her cardiologist, monitored throughout the four-hour procedure, and had no irregular heartbeats. She was not quite halfway through her six-month recovery from that surgery when her heart stopped.

. . . . .

My husband, Greg, got the first call that Friday afternoon. At 3:07 a grandparent at the school called and said only, “Come to the school. Now.”

He didn’t know what happened, and he didn’t question it. He dropped the weed trimmer he was using in our front yard and headed for the car.

By the time he arrived at the school, fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars were parked helter-skelter in the parking lot. Headmaster John Cipolla met him at the door.

“It’s Jenna,” he said. “They don’t want you to go back there.”

“Do you want to go with me or do you want me to go by myself?” my husband asked as he made his way into the gym.

When he got to his daughter, he knelt next to her and touched her leg.

“I’m her dad,” he told the emergency workers, “She has a heart condition. She has a displaced tricuspid valve. She had back surgery July 10 ....”?

My call came minutes later.

“They’re putting Jenna in an ambulance,” the school secretary told me.

I couldn’t seem to catch my breath, could barely speak. She talked to me on the phone while I made my way to West Georgia Medical Center to meet the ambulance.

When I walked into the emergency department, I barely spoke my name before they waved me on through the doors. I was standing in the hallway when Jenna came in on a stretcher – already with IVs and oxygen, still gray-faced and still unconscious. As they wheeled her into a room, Greg reached out and held me. He smelled of grass, sweat, Off! bug spray, and unbelievable strength.

The medical staff kept us informed as they quickly ruled out possibilities – a brain scan showed no bleeding, a spinal tap was clear. It wasn’t long before they realized the problem was her heart. She had collapsed when her heart had gone into sudden cardiac arrest.

The helicopter was summoned. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston is the place to go for cardiac treatment. They picked her up and let my husband ride along. I headed home, threw a few things in a suitcase, and was on the road in minutes with a friend driving.

She drove, I made calls, trying my best to hold it together to tell my oldest daughter, Hannah, a sophomore at Shorter College, along with grandparents, uncles and aunts, and friends to pray for my child. As we drove into Atlanta, I looked up and the sight I saw literally took my breath away.

Across the sky, stretching over the city, was the fattest rainbow I had ever seen with a background of bright blue sky. Not a rain cloud in sight. I couldn’t speak, I just wept.

And held to God’s promises.

Greg called when they arrived. They had lost Jenna’s blood pressure in the helicopter, but had gotten it back before landing. She was in the cardiac intensive-care unit.

. . . . .

It would be 13 hours before Jenna’s heart rate was stabilized. Until 4:19 a.m., one cardiologist and three nurses stood over my child, working to bring her heart rate down from 280 and her blood pressure up from 50/30. Lines snaked across her body – in her arms, her neck, her legs – with more than a dozen medicines flowing into her. Finally, in the early morning dark hours they stepped back and announced, “We got it.”

We only wanted to know that in the end she would be OK. No one could assure us of that. In fact, they told us she was the most critically ill child in CICU.

. . . . .

Sherri Brown/Index

Brown, left, tells a story to friends Joscelyn Marshall and Ariel Pursley in her small group at Western Heights Church in LaGrange. Her father, Greg, serves as pastor of the church.

Jenna became conscious on Saturday afternoon. They removed the ventilator and she began to speak. That’s when they told us the neurologists would be checking for brain injury. I hadn’t thought of that. I was just worried about her heart. Now that she seemed stable, we had to start all over again. Now I had another worry to add to a long list.

Those test results were promising, however. She suffered from several days of short-term memory loss, much like happens with a concussion. Four days later she recognized her nurse from the day before and we knew she had made it through another milestone. The quick response from everyone saved her life in more ways than one.

More tests determined that it was time to fix Jenna’s heart. The “cardiac event” was a result of atrial flutter – also the reason the AED did not shock her.

AEDs are able to detect ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia, the most common causes of cardiac arrest. A shock from the AED most often can bring a person out of cardiac arrest. Jenna’s rare atrial flutter wasn’t detected by the AED as a cardiac arrest. It was CPR that saved her.

Five days after her “event,” she had open-heart surgery. Doctors replaced her valve, reduced the size of her right atrium, performed a maze procedure to protect against another cardiac arrest and put in an AICD (automatic implantable cardioverter defibrillater) and pacemaker, a device that constantly monitors her heart rhythms. It will pace her heart if needed and will correct irregular heartbeats. In other words, her heart isn’t going to stop again.

. . . . .

We came home 12 days after entering the hospital. The next day, an Egleston cardiologist called me at home to ask for permission to tell Jenna’s story.

“This is really an amazing story,” he said. “You know, out of all pediatric cardiac arrests, only four percent make it.”

That statement warranted another bucket of tears from me.

My daughter was in the next room, giggling with her sister, eating yet another Popsicle, all because so many people – from the 16-year-old with a cell phone to an officer with an AED to a nurse who did CPR to a medical staff that went the extra mile to a soccer field filled with praying teenagers – they all did everything exactly right.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. In this case, it took a village to save a child.



About sudden cardiac arrest

· Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is a sudden, abrupt loss of heart function. Most sudden cardiac arrest episodes are caused by the rapid and/or chaotic activity of the heart known as ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation. These are abnormalities of the heart’s electrical conduction system.

· Sudden cardiac arrest is not a heart attack, which is caused by a blocked vessel leading to loss of blood supply to a portion of the heart muscle. However, some people may experience SCA during a heart attack and a previous heart attack is a predictor of future risk.

· Sudden cardiac arrest is a major health problem. According to the American Heart Association, SCA kills approximately 233,000 people each year in the United States.

· SCA kills more Americans than lung cancer, breast cancer, and HIV/AIDS combined.

· An estimated 95 percent of all people who suffer SCA die before reaching the hospital.

· Defibrillation is the only definitive treatment for SCA, and survival decreases 7-10 percent for every minute without it.

· SCA victims range from young children to the elderly.

· Cardiac arrest is reversible in most victims if it’s treated within minutes, but the only effective treatment is the delivery of an electrical shock, either with an automated external defibrillator (AED), or with a stop watch-sized implantable defibrillator. AICDs have been proven to be 98 percent effective in treating dangerously fast ventricular arrhythmias that can lead to SCA.




Does your church have an AED?

Scott Barkley/Index

Rick Payne of Carterville First Baptist heads the church’s medical response team.

Last year Rick Payne, a Cartersville pediatrician, felt God leading him to form a medical team to be on call at his church, Cartersville First Baptist. It turned out to be a timely decision – they’ve had two heart-related emergencies this year.

In July a woman collapsed in her Sunday School class and in November a man collapsed in the worship service. In both cases, medical personnel responded immediately and an AED (automatic external defibrillator) was hooked up.

Sudden cardiac arrest is the number one cause of death and there is a cure – but only five percent of victims survive.

“It’s all about time,” said Keith Hildebrandt, president of Southeast Medical Supply, a company that sells all brands of AEDs. “Chances of survival drop by 10 percent each minute. It takes a minute to figure out what’s going on, then a minute to call 911, then another minute to dispatch emergency workers. The average response time is 8 to 12 minutes.”

Without immediate CPR and an AED, chances of survival are slim.

“You want to have an AED wherever people go, wherever they spend their time,” Hildebrandt said. “You see them at airports, schools, city and county buildings, and, of course, churches.”

Having an AED is the first step to dealing with someone in cardiac arrest. People also need to know where the AED is and how to use it.

“You need an AED program,” Hildebrandt said. “You have to have people who recognize what to do – get the AED, call 911, start CPR, use the AED. You also need to make sure you have an AED that works. It doesn’t do any good if the pads and batteries have expired.”

That’s what Payne did at Cartersville.

“I think God was tugging at my heart. I had this at my office and why not have it in His house?” Payne said.

He searched the Internet for church medical response teams and came up with a mission statement for his team: “As our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ provided care to those that were physically ill, we as members of the Cartersville FBC medical response team will provide emergent care to those who become acutely ill during our services and events in a manner that is in keeping with the level of our training and certification. We will at all times be providing care as good Samaritans as defined by the laws of the state of Georgia.”

He recruited team members who were licensed physicians, nurses, physician assistants, or emergency medical technicians. They all must also hold a current basic life support certification granted by the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association.

Payne also made sure the appropriate equipment was available at the church, including an AED and an oxygen tank.

Every Sunday, the team member on call wears a beeper. In an emergency, an usher puts in a call to that team member.

While the AED hasn’t had to shock any of the people – CPR revived them before the AED was attached – it has provided monitoring.

“An AED is great because if you’re medical or non-medical you can use it. It tells you what to do,” Payne said. “But it’s important to have it where you can get to it. Keeping it in a locked room defeats your purpose for having an AED in an emergency situation. Ours is in the prayer room behind the main sanctuary. The door is always open.”

An AED costs about $1,500 to $2,000, but it’s an investment in the lives of people.

“If you’ve got people from 40 years and up in your church, you need to seriously consider it,” he said. “You never know when something’s going to happen. It’s a good witness to the community that you care about the people that come to your services.”


· Southeast Medical Supply sells and supports all AED products. For information contact Keith Hildebrandt at (770) 425-5840 or toll-free at (800) 580-1375 or


· The American Heart Assoc- iation offers CPR and AED training through its network of training centers. To locate a training center near you, call (877) AHA-4CPR, or go to and click on the “CPR” button for information and specific training opportunities.


· In North Georgia, Diana Brown of Skills for Living can provide CPR and AED training designed for churches. Contact her at or at (770) 735-6015.