Quick Response, Emergency Know-How Saves Life of Southern Regional Student

By JULIET KASZAS-HOCH | Dec 18, 2019
Supplied Photo

Stafford Township — Three Mondays ago, Southern Regional High School science teacher and Fishing Club adviser Jason Hoch was expecting one of his club members, 10th-grader Tyler Leary, to stop by during third period to tell him about a deer he’d harvested with his bow the weekend prior. Tyler’s father, Brian Leary, had texted Hoch about the deer, and told him Tyler was excited to relay the story of the hunt. But Tyler didn’t show.

Unbeknownst to Hoch, Tyler was in the hospital. His heart had gone into ventricular fibrillation in second-period gym class, and, after quick-acting school staff members had revived him, medical staff had taken over.

“I woke up like any other regular day,” Tyler recounted last Thursday, back home in Manahawkin with his family by his side. “I got to school and felt perfectly fine.”

Second period, Tyler has gym class with teacher Keith Cocuzza. That day, they were playing speedball, which is “kind of like a combination of hockey and soccer,” said Tyler.

As he explained, “I was playing for maybe a minute, and I wasn’t running hard at all. I went to throw a shot and missed, and I thought, ‘My heart feels weird.’ It had a really fast flutter. I thought I could just breathe it off” – as he’d done before.

Tyler, born eight weeks premature, was diagnosed at birth with a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The Mayo Clinic, at mayoclinic.org, describes HCM as “a disease in which the heart muscle (myocardium) becomes abnormally thick (hypertrophied). The thickened heart muscle can make it harder for the heart to pump blood.”

While Tyler is an avid angler and hunter, he does have restrictions on athletics due to his HCM. And,because he has this condition, what happened that day in gym class is “something that can happen to someone with this condition,” said his mother, Tara Buffi.

Tyler remarked, “I don’t remember anything after that until I woke up in the hospital.” As he learned later, “Mr. Cocuzza said it was like someone flipped a switch and I dropped.” He looked to be experiencing a seizure. He turned purple. He had no pulse. Cocuzza started CPR. Someone alerted school nurse Barbara Nokes.

The staff members used an automated external defibrillator – a portable device that is used to deliver an electric shock to the heart – on Tyler. Southern has multiple AEDs located throughout the school buildings, and the family has one for Tyler just in case of an incident.

Tyler was taken by ambulance to Southern Ocean Medical Center. When he woke up, he said, “I remember Mr. Di Pietro (an assistant principal in Southern’s 9/10 Building) being there with me. And I looked down and saw all the wires and the AED pads. I was like, ‘How did I get here?’”

Tyler was supposed to be subsequently flown to Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP), but due to poor weather, he was taken in another ambulance. He slept most of the way, then woke up again, groggy, in the emergency department at CHOP.

Doctors walked him through what had happened, and said he would need an automatic internal cardiac defibrillator, a small battery-powered device that monitors heart rhythm and detects irregular heartbeats. An AICD is designed to deliver electric shocks to help prevent sudden death in patients with known heart conditions, including HCM.

“The AICD is kind of like a safety net,” said Tyler. “It’s like an AED that’s inside of me. It’s set to deliver a shock at 240 beats per minute. When it notices an irregular heart rhythm, it will charge in 14 seconds and deliver 80 joules of energy to reset my heart rhythm.” And, as Tyler pointed out, people can still safely perform CPR when an individual has an AICD.

Luckily for Tyler, that Monday in gym class, Cocuzza and Nokes were there to perform CPR and to use an AED to shock his heart back into the correct rhythm.

“I am so thankful for them, for the quick response,” said Buffi. “They acted so fast, and because of that, he’s here. And the students in the gym class did everything the nurse told them to do,” staying calm and respectful.

“Even afterwards, everyone kept in touch and asked if Tyler was OK,” she added. “That says a lot about the district.”

As Brian Leary noted, “Because people were trained and they responded fast, we had a positive outcome.” Awareness is key. Tyler’s teachers are always made aware of his heart condition, so that if something happens, they have knowledge to help them act.

Tyler’s stepmother, Emily Leary, also hopes to bring awareness to the fact that hypertrophic cardiomyopathy often goes undiagnosed. Although Tyler was diagnosed at birth, as the Mayo Clinic states, some individuals may go undiagnosed because they have few, if any, symptoms. Many of these people “can lead normal lives with no significant problems. However, in a small number of people with HCM,” says the hospital, “the thickened heart muscle can cause shortness of breath, chest pain or problems in the heart’s electrical system, resulting in life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms.”

Southern’s physical forms for students starting a sport do include questions about cardiac issues, said Emily, who underscored the importance of cardiac screenings for youngsters.

The entire family feels extremely fortunate that everything fell into place that Monday when Tyler went into v-fib.

“How do you thank someone for saving your son’s life?” Brian queried. In a text to Joseph DiPietro, he wrote, “I can’t find the words to express how thankful we are to everyone involved in Tyler’s rescue effort. They saved our son’s life today and for that we are eternally grateful. The response from staff and the students there was truly amazing, a reflection on the education they get in the Stafford and Southern school systems.”

Tyler is planning to return to school on Jan. 6, following the winter break.

“I feel great,” he said the other day. “I’m really excited to go back to school and see my friends, and to get back in the woods.”


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