Overcoming adversity: man who cheated death determined to make most of life
August 12, 2010
- suffered cardiac arrest, left him without a pulse for nearly 40 minutes
- dedicated soccer player
- Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship to James Madison University, Va
- Long QT Syndrome
On the surface, Stephen Brown looks like your average 20-year-old college student.
However, beneath his normal-looking exterior, Brown is an anomaly - a "miracle boy."
Although that is a label Brown admits he hates, it is one others say can't be denied.
On Nov. 19, 2009, Brown would suffer cardiac arrest that left him without a pulse for nearly 40 minutes.
"Technically, I was dead," Brown said, noting on average, most people don't survive after six minutes without oxygen to their brains.
However, unlike most people, Brown "returned from the dead," and said he is determined to live life to the fullest and make a difference.
Brown, son of Susan and Col. Dennis Brown, deputy surgeon, Third Army/U.S. Army Central, was first diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome - a heart condition in which the heartbeat increases radically - in May 2008, shortly before his 18th birthday.
Brown said he had never demonstrated any symptoms up to that point.
He was a dedicated soccer player who had just received a full Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship to James Madison University, Va.
The only health issue he'd faced around that time was a bout with the flu, Susan said.
Then, one night, Brown had what Susan said she initially thought was a seizure, which quickly turned into respiratory failure.
Brown's parents, who were stationed in Maryland at the time, had Stephen taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"Overnight, he had his first cardiac arrest and coded early morning May 12, Mother's day," Susan said.
"My heart rate was up to 420 beats a minute, too fast to give any oxygen," Brown said.
It was the first time there was a code blue in the pediatric ward at Walter Reed in four years, Susan said, leading to a scene she describes as something out of a medical show.
"There were 50 people in the room in seconds," she said. "They brought him back after two rounds of compressions."
After discovering there may be heart problems, the staff administered an electrocardiography, where the lengthened QT interval was discovered.
The diagnosis revealed several findings, including that the medicine Brown was taking for the flu may have contributed to his disease manifesting.
"He was taking medicine a Long QT (patient) shouldn't have," Susan said.
The EKG also helped discover that the disease, which is genetic in nature, was also prevalent in Susan's sister and Brown's cousins, although mildly.
While their conditions could be treated with medication, Brown was forced to have an implantable cardioverterdefibrillator installed.
"The ICD is a lifelong thing unless, somehow, they find a cure," Brown said.
He believes finding a cure is something that most likely will not happen in his lifetime.
He is also on five medications, which he takes three times a day, as well as supplements, like potassium, to help regulate the electrical and nerve impulses in his body.
Like the ICD, which shocks and restarts the heart in the event of cardiac arrest, the medication will also be lifelong, but will be adjusted over time, Brown said.
Although Susan said the pacemaker allowed Brown to return back to school and even attend his prom, the pacemaker did not solve all his problems.
Last year, while attending the College of Charleston, S.C., Brown suffered the attack that made his story so unique.
"He was at school in the library stairwell and he told a girl he wasn't feeling well and to get help," Susan said.
Two students arrived, found Brown unconscious, and began to start cardiopulmonary resuscitation, which they continued until college and city emergency medical services personnel arrived.
Brown was taken by ambulance to the Medical University of South Carolina, arriving there roughly 12 minutes after he had his heart attack, Susan said.
Though the response was quick, Susan said it didn't look good.
"The doctors said they were going to keep working on Stephen as long as they could," she said.
Work included a continuation of a hypothermia-inducing protocol used to cool a body down to help maintain organ functions.
"Doctors found the sooner you cool down the body after cardiac arrest, the easier it is to save organs and brain function," Susan said, noting Stephen was only the 42nd person to undergo the treatment at the facility.
"That's why people who fall in cold lakes in Michigan have a better chance of survival than someone (who falls in a lake) in Florida."
Still, despite the reassurance of doctors and steps already taken, Susan could only think of one thing.
"I didn't want him to be alone if he was going to go," she said. "I didn't want him to die with strangers."
Susan and Dennis had a neighbor drive them the nearly four-hour trip to the hospital to be with their son, who they learned during the trip had been resuscitated. Still, questions remained.
"He was without a pulse for nearly 40 minutes. Was there going to be a recovery of brain function' Would his kidneys and liver work'"
Susan said she wondered.
Because Stephen was placed into a medically induced coma, those questions could not be resolved until after he was reawakened.
On the fifth day, Susan said they began to bring him out of the coma and increase his body temperature, a slow procedure which lasted two days.
It was during this awakening that the Browns would experience the first of many miracles.
"He gave a thumbs up to show the nurse he was aware while being awakened," Susan said. "The staff said it was a miracle."
More miraculous was the lack of internal damage to Brown.
He would have to undergo a week in intensive care therapy, learning to walk, talk, eat and repair fine motor skills, but was released afterward to go home and continue the therapy.
Other than a loss of some short-term memories, brain function was not disrupted, allowing Brown to return to school, where he is studying to become a doctor.
Susan credits the remarkable turn of events to many things, both explainable and unexplainable.
"It shows the cooling therapy works," she said, adding the CPR kept pushing blood to the brain while Brown was unconscious.
A Catholic, Susan also said the power of prayer is evident.
"We had so many people praying for something. It shows there is something greater than even the doctors," she said.
On the matter of faith, Brown said despite his ordeal, his level of faith has not necessarily changed or been challenged, although he can see the changes in others.
"People who I and my parents have talked to; their faith has increased because it's truly a miracle I am alive," Brown said.
He did, however, question why these experiences happened to him. "I wondered why after I received the full scholarship and other things, I lost it all in a blink of an eye," Brown said.
His time at Walter Reed did keep him from falling into a state of pity, he added.
"At first I asked 'Why me'' because it isn't fair.
Being at Walter Reed and seeing the wounded warriors, it put things in a different perspective.
I realized there are people who are worse off than I am," Brown said. "Someone 'up there' hopefully has another route for me."
Right now, that something is giving back to the community that helped him so much. Brown volunteers in MUSC with fellow heart patients.
He performs public service announcements for the hospital and helps educate as many people as possible about preventive steps one can take.
"People aren't aware heart disease is the number one killer in the USA," Brown said. "People need to learn to use a defibrillator and get CPR training."
Brown said many of his friends have gone on to get training since his incident and that his college has increased its number of defibrillators from six to 22.
Brown also encourages athletes to get an EKG before playing sports.
"You see a lot of athletes drop dead quickly (of heart failure). It's a sudden-death syndrome an EKG can prevent," he said.
Athletically, Brown was forced to give up soccer. Sports where he could get hit in the chest, thrill rides, such as roller coasters, and drinking and smoking are all out of the question.
He also learned that jogging was a bad idea after his defibrillator went off while he was attempting to run the 2010 Fort McPherson Hooah Race in June.
Thankfully, his mother said, he has not experienced any episodes since.
"I stopped dwelling on what I couldn't do and (focused) on what I could," Brown said.
He said he plays tennis and golf now, and is focused on his pre-med studies, adding it wouldn't surprise him to end up reading about himself while studying.
"When I'm in medical school, I'll be reading about my experience as a case file," he said.
Brown said although becoming a doctor will be a long ordeal - about 13 years - it is one he knows he can get through.
If there is one thing his life has taught him, Brown said, it is the power of the human spirit to keep going.
As for his Family, something they saw through their son's experience was the strength of the Army Family.
"People don't realize how close the military is.
The street pulled together," Susan said, adding the Families on her street held prayer vigils, visited with the Family and cooked a Thanksgiving dinner for them and the hospital staff that saved Stephen.
"There was enough food for 100 people," Susan said.
The Family is also close with military doctors at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center, Md., where Brown goes for quarterly checkups with his physician, Navy Capt. Dr. Daniel Shmorhun, a pediatric electro-physiologist.
It is a lot for a young man to endure, Brown admits, but says he has found the spirit to keep going in small steps.
"The thing that I have learned is to not to take life for granted and to live it to the fullest," Brown said. "You have to take one day at a time."
Brown said that lesson is a wisdom drawn from an experience that should have left him dead - a true miracle by all accounts. Just don't say that to him.
"I mean honestly, at 20 years old, would you want to be called 'miracle boy''" said Brown.