By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
For the Reese family, it had started out as a typical Saturday on March 21, 2015. Curtis Reese managed sons Garner, then 6, and Evan, then 4, while his wife Melanie attended a family baby shower.
He shuttled the kids around, picking up the equipment for Garner’s T-ball team that he’d be coaching that spring, and supervising an impromptu playdate with a 5-year-old neighbor. After promising cookies if the kids cleaned up their toys, Reese took them to the neighborhood grocery store to buy cookie dough.
The family from Dallas learned what happened next from a parking lot surveillance video.
Reese and the three kids were walking to the car when Reese’s gait seemed to be off. After arriving at the car, he suddenly fell backward, hitting his head on the concrete and losing consciousness. The boys rushed to their father’s side as he laid unconscious for about a minute, then jumped away as Reese began having seizures.
Bystanders corralled the kids while a security guard called 911. Reese, then 40, briefly regained consciousness when an EMS team arrived and remembers sitting up and trying to answer questions, but the words wouldn’t come out. His ear was bleeding from the impact of the fall.
Reese was taken to the hospital by ambulance, while a fire truck crew ferried the kids. Melanie was called and met them at the hospital.
For the next few days, Reese underwent numerous neurological tests as doctors tried to determine the cause of his seizures before the hospital’s cardiology team took over.
Reese’s speech returned after the initial trauma, but he was in so much pain the next week was a blur.
After reviewing the parking lot surveillance video, doctors believed Reese may have had an irregular heartbeat. So they did some tests to try to recreate what happened.
Reese twice went into ventricular fibrillation — when the lower chambers of the heart quiver and the heart can’t pump blood, causing the heart to stop. Doctors had to shock his heart back to its normal rhythm.
To prevent any such real-world scenarios, doctors implanted a defibrillator in Reese’s chest to shock his heart if it ever gets into a dangerous rhythm. Genetic tests revealed a mutated gene that doctors believe may have triggered long QT syndrome, an often inherited condition that affects the heart’s electrical activity.
Seizures can be a symptom of long QT syndrome, but some studies have shown that up to 35 percent of seizures induced by the potentially fatal arrhythmia may be misdiagnosed as from some other cause, such as epilepsy.
In part, that’s because some people who faint have “convulsive syncope,” or a twitching caused by lack of blood flow to the brain that may be mistaken for a seizure, said Daniel Friedman, M.D., an associate professor of neurology at New York University’s Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center. Additionally, studies have shown patients with some types of long QT syndrome also have a personal or family history of seizures, Friedman said.
Reese underwent a week of inpatient rehabilitation before continuing his recovery at home, undergoing speech, occupational and physical therapy as his brain continued to heal.
“I tried to stay positive and joke around, but it was really tough,” he said. “There are times when you just ask yourself, ‘Why me?’”
His biggest fear is that his condition may be passed down to his children. Reese is a triplet and one of his sisters discovered she shares the mutated gene and is now working with a cardiologist. Reese and his wife have consulted with a pediatric cardiologist to evaluate any risks their kids may face.
Today, Reese still has some hearing loss, a result of the fall, and tires more easily than before. But the experience gave him a greater appreciation for life, and a reminder not to get too caught up in all the stresses of managing a career and family.
“I’m still processing what happened, but I know how lucky I am,” he said. “This has been a blessing in disguise.”