Doctor revives fellow hockey player after cardiac arrest during game

A condition that is usually fatal within minutes

Kowalewski was admitted to UM Health, Michigan Medicine, and diagnosed with a critical narrowing of the main artery at the front of his heart – the left anterior descending, or LAD – among the most dangerous places for a blockage.

It was an unlikely scenario given Kowalewski’s age, active and healthy lifestyle and lack of a heart history.

But stories like his are not uncommon. Sudden cardiac arrest, the sudden and unexpected loss of heart function in a person with or without heart disease, is a leading cause of death worldwide. It affects approximately 300,000 to 450,000 people in the United States each year and can have an impact on children and adults of all ages.

If the right measures are not taken right away, it is often fatal within minutes.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and AEDs are essential life-saving tools during such cardiac emergencies, which is why Michigan Medicine has partnered with organizations such as ADAM Project. The organization, named after a 17-year-old who collapsed and died of sudden cardiac arrest while playing basketball in 1999, helps schools and communities prepare for such events advocating for emergency plans, CPR training and accessibility of AEDs.

Brett Wanamaker, MD, an interventional cardiologist UM Health Frankel Cardiovascular Center who treated Kowalewski, remembers his own hockey coach suffering cardiac arrest on the ice during a pickup game when Wanamaker was a teenager.

“Unfortunately there was no AED in the arena and he could not be revived,” Wanamaker said. “The greater availability of AEDs makes a big difference for people who have sudden cardiac arrest. Seeing how that impacted Greg and playing a part in his incredible story was really meaningful to me.

And Kowalewski wants her story to help efforts that can help save other lives.

“It was really eye-opening. Until this happens to you, you may not think about things like CPR and AEDs. They can save someone’s life. In a different circumstance, I might not have had a chance to fight.

Looking back, there were also signs that something was wrong, he said. He’d had shortness of breath in the last three hockey games, but just thought it was his asthma, encouraging others not to ignore the symptoms and “always listen to your body”.

Catherine J. Martinez