There might not be anything sweeter to a 17-year-old than a free class period right before a holiday. This was true for Kenny Tillman-Myrie on Oct. 29 until his heart stopped working and he collapsed on the cold floor of a Middletown classroom.
Kenny's a little on the skinny side; he's a bit shy too, but he has an athletic build developed from his years of devotion to basketball. He also has a wining smile, the kind that could charm just about anybody.
When Kenny walked into Scott Cantara's classroom for a free period Oct. 29, he was laughing and joking with his best friend, Shaquille Green. They talked about Halloween, coming up on Sunday, and, of course, about basketball.
He and Shaquille had distinguished themselves on the varsity team at Middletown High School.
There was some trouble for Kenny early in life with a foster family. That was behind him. Kenny has called his aunt Loraine Myrie "Mom" since he was five years old. Myrie took Kenny and his sister, Tara, and adopted and raised them both.
Tara is in college at Utica. Kenny is looking at college. He wanted to play college basketball. He wanted that bad.
Kenny was already being looked at by some college coaches, say Middletown coaches Jim Kelly and James Smith. A good student, Kenny had hopes of using basketball to help pay for college.
Life to Kenny on Oct. 29 was looking up. But walking into Cantara's classroom is the last thing he remembers about that day.
The next thing he remembers is waking up blurry eyed the next day in Westchester Medical Center with his aunt and girlfriend looking down at him, he says.
His life had changed forever in little more than an instant. "I thought it was a dream," he said.
He only had only seconds
"(Kenny) just fell back in his chair," said Shaquille about that day in October. "At first we thought he was joking or just laughing too hard." He wasn't.
Kenny's heart seized up and it wasn't pumping blood to his vital organs. He was most likely in this condition for half a minute. Seconds longer and the result might have been brain damage or death.
After Kenny hit the floor, school staff acted swiftly, according to an internal timeline provided by the school. Nurses Wendy Manis, Linda Blosser and Shelley Burr were called to the classroom. Security monitor James "Duke" Kimble ran to get the automatic defibrillator.
Manis listened to Kenny's breathing. Something was very wrong. The high school's security team members — Sam Barone, Nelson Reed, classroom teacher William Donohue and School Resource Officer Kevin Weymer — arrived to assist.
They put the paddles of the defibrillator on Kenny. The machine assessed his heart rhythm. He needed a shock. Blosser pushed the button. Manis performed chess compression while Donohue provided breathing for three cycles of CPR. The EMTs arrived and took Kenny to the Horton campus of Orange Regional Medical Center before he was flown to Westchester.
News spread throughout the school. "I couldn't believe it," said Laura Brissing, Kenny's guidance counselor. Healthy 17-year-old athletes don't go into cardiac arrest. Do they?
What just happened?
As far as Loraine Myrie is concerned, Kenny's being alive today is nothing short of a miracle.
The school was tremendously supportive, she said. Assistant Principal Carl Pabon drove Myrie to Westchester Medical Center after the incident.
Clinically, Kenny didn't die. "Death is not a reversible diagnosis," said Dr. Mathew Pinto, a pediatric cardiac specialist who treated Kenny when he arrived at Westchester.
But he beat the odds. An adolescent going into cardiac arrests outside of a hospital has a 9 percent chance of surviving, says Pinto. Inside the hospital the chances of survival increase to just 27 percent.
Kenny not only survived, but also suffered no brain damage. This wouldn't have been the case if the school staff hadn't responded so quickly, Pinto said.
Kenny can't play competitive basketball again. He can shoot a few hoops. But he can't play to win.
The doctors still can't tell him what's wrong but they opened Kenny's chest at Westchester to install an internal defibrillator.
Pinto says the most likely answer is genetic but it will take some time until testing can prove this conclusively. It's likely Kenny has some type of cardiac dysrhythmia, also known as arrhythmia, meaning the electric activity of his heart is abnormal.
That's what the internal defibrillator is for; to shock the heart back into a regular beat. But it's too risky to play competitive sports when wires are attached to your heart, Pinto said. Goodbye, basketball.
'A purpose for this young man'
Sam Barone, a past fire chief in Middletown, has used a defibrillator before, but never on somebody so young, he said.
Barone, like many of the people who responded to Kenny's emergency, had the necessary training. The American Red Cross is currently looking at awarding medals to the people involved with the incident who received their CPR training with the Red Cross, according to Ken Eastwood, school superintendent.
"It's all worth it when you see Kenny walking around," Barone said.
On Dec. 14 Kenny turned 18. It's taken him some time to digest everything that happened since Oct. 29.
Shortly before his birthday he was sitting in the guidance office at school with Pabon, Brissing and a newspaper reporter. Kenny says he was brought to tears over not being able to play basketball anymore. He says this quickly, as if pulling off a bandage rapidly so it won't hurt.
"There's a purpose for this young man beyond basketball," said Pabon with complete confidence. "This (incident) proves it."
Kenny steals a look at Pabon, and then looks back at the floor. Then he looks back up, and there it is: Kenny's winning smile, impossible to resist.
Blogger's Note #1: in 1980 (AMA - American Medical Association) and 1981(ABA - American Bar Association) the following definition of death was approved.
The uniform determination of death. The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in 1980 formulated the Uniform Determination of Death Act. It states that: "An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem is dead. A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards."
This means that someone whose heart isn't pumping blood and who is not breathing is dead. That person will most likely stay dead unless CPR is begun immediately. Using the definition of death approved by the AMA and the ABA, death is reversible. It happens every day in the U.S.A.