Matthew Carter, CVICU patient, yearbook photo and picture of him on his birthday in his sling

Child Health

A High School Students Heart-Stopping Experience with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy

Matthew Carter was on his way to school when he suddenly felt exhausted. The next thing he knew, he was in a hospital. Because of a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, his heart had stopped. Fortunately, he was able to get his heartbeat restored and, thanks to the fast action of the region’s only pediatric cardiovascular ICU, if it happens again, his normal heart rhythm can be restored instantly.

Last December, what started as a typical school day for 18-year-old high school student, Matthew Carter, quickly turned into a blurry ambulance ride.

Matt went about his normal routine, dropping off his youngest brother at the local middle school before continuing on to the high school with his other brother. But as he arrived, he felt unusually tired and leaned up against a pole for support. That was the last thing he clearly remembered before regaining consciousness in the hospital.

“I thought maybe I hit my head,” Matt recalls. But it turns out his heart had stopped completely.

A history of heart disease from a young age

Rewind to third grade. Matt was playing basketball and began tugging at his jersey, near his heart. After the game, my dad asked me about it because he could tell I wasn’t tired, but it seemed like something was hurting me,” remembers Matt. I said it felt like my heart hurt. So, my parents scheduled an appointment with a cardiologist.

That’s when he and his parents learned he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart muscle thickens and makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood. 

As the years went on, Matt and his family knew he would need additional treatment and had begun the process of talking to a specialist about getting an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD). However, the need for the ICD came quicker than they all expected. 

From a heart-stopping moment to a return to normal 

“When the school called me, I knew it was his heart,” says Matt’s mom, Doris. 

The day Matt’s heart stopped, with the quick action of school officials, he was able to get help right away. His heart was shocked with a defibrillator, and he was taken by ambulance to the Emergency Department at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital.

Upon arrival, specialists realized the severity of the incident and promptly elevated Matt’s case to the Pediatric Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CICU), the region’s only pediatric CICU. Matt received his Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator the very next day

Matt was a bit stunned, but quickly recovered. Although he doesn’t remember much of what happened, he told his parents he was happy to survive the ordeal. 

“I had to wear a cast on my left arm for a few weeks because I wasn’t supposed to move my arm, but other than that, I recovered quickly,” Matt says. “Most of the time now, I forget it’s there.” 

In the event Matt’s heart stops again, the ICD will be able to detect it and shock his heart back into a normal rhythm. 

About hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and other pediatric heart conditions 

Amanda Ferguson, MD, is a pediatric cardiac intensivist at Atrium Health Levine Children’s who provides care of many children with congenital and acquired heart disease and heart abnormalities. She says it was a good thing Matt was able to receive help so quickly.

“In many cases where the heart stops, patients can suffer brain injuries and have other issues stemming from not having enough blood flow,” Dr. Ferguson adds. “But, thanks to the quick action taken by everyone [the school, emergency responders and the care team at Levine Children’s], Matt didn’t experience that.”

As for what caused Matt’s heart to stop during a routine activity, Dr. Ferguson explains that in people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy the heart muscle itself is abnormal and contains fibrous tissue instead of normal muscle tissue, which can prompt a patient’s arrhythmia. “People with this condition can vary in age,” she said. Sometimes blood flow out of the heart is blocked and they need surgical intervention to relieve the obstruction. Other times they have arrhythmia, like Matt did.

Unlike in adults, where heart issues tend to develop over a long period of time and can be associated with lifestyle factors such as a diet high in saturated fats and lack of exercise, in children heart issues present differently. “They tend to be related to a genetic abnormality or a physical defect in the heart. These conditions can be detected at birth or even in utero, but often they’ll only be detected if there’s a family history or after a specific incident occurs,” such as Matt’s incident on the basketball court. 

“If a child experiences any kind of extreme symptoms (losing consciousness, extreme chest pain), the child should be taken to the emergency room,” says Dr. Ferguson. “If a child experiences less severe symptoms like recurring lightheadedness, a pediatrician can do some initial screenings and refer the child to a cardiologist for more testing if necessary.”  

A bright future lies ahead

Now, Matt’s back at school and continuing all his usual activities. He plans to attend college after he graduates from high school and hopes to pursue a career in forensics. He and his family remain grateful for the care he received. “All the nurses and the doctors at Levine Children’s really took great care of him,” Doris says. Matt agrees, adding, “They were phenomenal.”  

“We’re blessed that Matt is the kid he is – he just flies through everything he’s had to deal with. He’s an amazing kid,” says Doris. 

Learn more about our pediatric heart program: Pediatric Cardiology and Heart Surgery | Levine Children’s | Atrium Health