The Problem: Sudden Cardiac Arrest
19-year-old Matthew Valente was a healthy kid growing up.
“I was fairly active playing sports, especially hockey. I got my physical done every year, and there were never any issues,” he says.
Playing on three hockey teams at once, the then-Hollidaysburg High School senior didn’t think he had anything to worry about.
One night in late April 2018, Matthew decided to run on the treadmill in his home.
Suddenly, he collapsed.
Luckily, his mom, twin sister, and some friends were all nearby and rushed to his aid right away.
“At first, they thought I passed out from exhaustion. But when the color in my face started draining and they realized I wasn’t breathing, they knew it was much more serious.”
Matthew's twin sister, Taylor, and mom, Kathy, started CPR while a friend called 911.
EMTs were there in minutes and used an automated external defibrillator (AED) to shock Matthew’s heart back into rhythm. Once his heart started beating again, the immediate concern turned to Matthew’s brain and how long it was without oxygen.
They knew time was of the essence.
The Path to UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute
Medics rushed Matthew to the ER at UPMC Altoona, a short drive from his home.
The trauma team started to cool Matthew’s body with ice packs to preserve any oxygen that was available for the brain.
They also did an echocardiogram to check Matthew’s heart, since he suffered a cardiac arrest. The test found that he had been born with an abnormally thick heart, called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM).
Cardiomyopathy is a disease that affects the heart muscle. HCM causes the heart walls to thicken, which leaves less space for blood in the chambers. This makes the heart work harder to pump blood.
HCM can also lead to cardiac arrest, which is a sudden loss of heart function due to a dangerously fast heart rhythm. This is what Matthew suffered while running on the treadmill.
Once doctors confirmed that Matthew had HCM, they knew that they needed to get him to a cardiac ICU. There, his team could place him on a lung bypass machine to improve his life-threatening low oxygen levels.
UPMC doctors can discuss cases across the system using a secure teleconference line. Matthew's doctors in Altoona agreed that he needed to get to the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute in Pittsburgh, Pa., right away.
But Matthew’s oxygen levels were too low to make the life flight helicopter ride to Pittsburgh.
Once doctors at UPMC Altoona were able to improve Matthew’s oxygen levels, he was on the flight to UPMC.
The Solution: Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator
Upon arrival at UPMC Presbyterian, Matthew was under the care of the cardiothoracic ICU team.
Matthew, still unconscious, had a collapsed lung as a result of the CPR. There was also the chance of a yet-unknown degree of brain damage.
Raveen Bazaz, MD, and his team felt the best plan for Matthew would be a medically induced coma and a lung-bypass machine.
The bypass machine would give his lung and heart a chance to heal. It also would give his brain a chance to preserve as much oxygen and thus brain function as possible.
Matthew’s team lifted his induced coma after a few days to test his brain function. After seeing Matthew had brain function, they slowly weaned him out of the coma.
The cardiothoracic team met with Jonathan Holtz, MD, the Advanced Heart Failure doctor at UPMC Altoona. Dr. Holtz happened to be doing rounds at UPMC Presbyterian that week.
They discussed further work-up and treatment of Matthew’s condition.
Dr. Holtz ordered another MRI of Matthew’s heart, which further confirmed that he had HCM.
Based on the test results, Dr. Holtz suggested placing an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, in Matthew’s chest. After the implant, the ICD would monitor Matthew’s heart and shock it back to a normal rhythm, should it ever stop again.
Once Matthew was awake, Dr. Bazaz placed the life-saving ICD device in Matthew’s chest.
The Result: Thriving in College
The doctors at UPMC Presbyterian cleared Matthew to go home.
He had physical therapy in Altoona, to gain the strength back that he had lost while in the coma.
“When I first got home, even a task as simple as walking up the stairs left me exhausted,” Matthew says. “I had to adjust to getting back to doing everyday tasks after my heart went through what it did.”
Matthew worked hard to regain his strength and, one month later, walked across the stage to receive his high school diploma.
Matthew is now at Penn State University – Altoona campus, where he's majoring in bio-behavioral health.
“I’d like to do something in the medical field, and my major allows me to explore many different career paths.”
While he's no longer able to play competitive hockey, he still enjoys skating for fun. He follows up with Dr. Holtz and the HVI team at UPMC Altoona.
Since HCM is often genetic, Dr. Holtz suggested that Matthew’s family members get tested. His twin sister and mom both had testing.
“Luckily, they both don’t have it. We knew my father didn’t have it either,” Matthew says.
Matthew has become an advocate for HCM awareness after his experience. He urges others to learn about their family medical history — especially heart health — and take proactive steps.
“You can live a normal life with HCM. I’m doing it, and so are others.”
Matthew feels some of the best ways people with HCM can take care of themselves is to:
- Know the risks around HCM.
- Be aware of the symptoms.
- Get their heart checked if they have a family history of HCM.
“I had to learn to understand my body, and become aware of how my heart feels, and how I feel,” he says.
Matthew says one of the many things his diagnosis has taught him is to value his body. And to take the best care of it that he can.
“I truly feel like I’m treating my body the best that I can now. I exercise, I eat healthy, I’m more aware of what I’m putting my body through. I have to do my best to keep my heart in the best shape that I can,” he says.
Matthew's treatment and results may not be representative of similar cases.