13-year-old Utah boy’s traumatizing cardiac arrest leads to AED awareness

Feb 27, 2023, 8:52 AM
Wilson McConkie, left, visits his 13-year-old son Christian in the hospital. Christian went into ca...
Wilson McConkie, left, visits his 13-year-old son Christian in the hospital. Christian went into cardiac arrest during a basketball game on Jan. 28. (Photo: Family photo)
(Photo: Family photo)

FARR WEST, Utah — “It was absolutely horrifying.”

That’s how Plain City resident Wilson McConkie described watching his 13-year-old son Christian go into cardiac arrest.

McConkie was coaching Christian’s city league basketball game on Jan. 28 when he saw his son pass out on the side of the court at the Farr West Recreational Center. He tried to wake Christian up and got scared when he realized he couldn’t.

An off-duty nurse came over to help, followed by an off-duty EMT, who began performing CPR on Christian. An employee called 911.

West Haven resident Jonathan Price had just arrived at the facility for his son’s basketball game. He said he “scoured” every office in the building searching for an automated external defibrillator, or AED — with no success.

Weber County’s new Live 911 program allowed an officer to show up within just a few minutes to take over performing chest compressions. A paramedic arrived shortly after with an AED to deliver an electric shock to Christian’s heart.

“I did have some moments where I wasn’t sure he was going to make it,” McConkie said. “It still makes me a little emotional when I say out loud that my 13-year-old was in cardiac arrest.”

Christian was flown to Primary Children’s Hospital. An echocardiogram showed that a lifelong structural abnormality in Christian’s heart, thought to be benign, was actually a subaortic membrane obstructing his blood flow. Christian then underwent open-heart surgery.

McConkie said his son is recovering well and returned to school earlier this week. Christian will wear an AED vest for the next few months to continually monitor his heart rhythm.

“We feel very blessed,” his father said. “Between the CPR and the AED — that saved his life.”

McConkie said he isn’t angry that the AED at the recreation center wasn’t located sooner.

“I think some corrections have been made,” he said. “I think a lot of people have learned from this. You don’t anticipate how important that technology can be until you actually need it.”

‘It broke my heart’

Price couldn’t shake off the incident.

“I can’t get that out of my head. It broke my heart,” Price said after watching the EMT perform CPR on Christian. “It was traumatizing to see that type of physical life-saving effort being done on a child.”

He was especially concerned that an AED hadn’t been displayed in an easily accessible location at the rec center.

Fifteen U.S. states, plus Washington, D.C., have laws requiring AEDs in every gym, health club, and fitness center. But Utah is not one of those states.

Price met with Farr West Mayor Ken Phippen and recreation director Mick Holmes, who told him an AED had been stored in a drawer onsite for over a year. Holmes said he and most of his staff members know the location of the AED, but none of them were at the rec center when Christian went into cardiac arrest.

“I’ll totally take the blame,” Holmes said. “I know the importance of it, and my failure was just not having it visibly available at all times. So I take responsibility for that AED not being present.”

The facility’s AED has been moved and is now “prominently displayed” near the recreation center entrance, Price said.

“If you’re going to have an AED, that’s really where it needs to be,” McConkie said. “In the moment, you may not have time to go searching around.”

Price also brought his concerns to West Haven Mayor Rob Vanderwood. He said Vanderwood responded with a promise to purchase four AEDs to be available in all West Haven recreational fields, with athletic directors being alerted to the locations of the devices.

Holmes also said “major changes” are being made in Farr West, including adding an AED to the city offices of Farr West.

Price hopes more towns will be compelled to make AEDs widely available, especially at gyms and health centers. McConkie has also reached out to other local coaches and recreational centers to make sure more AEDs are available, including additional training and awareness.

“Not to push blame on someone, but every game now I’m cognizant and looking for an AED in case somebody, heaven forbid, has an incident,” Price said. “It opened visibility to the need for (AEDs) for our town. It’s an eye-opener for everybody.”

‘We still have a long way to go’

Just a few weeks before Christian went into cardiac arrest at his basketball game, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest during a Jan. 2 NFL game. Hamlin was treated using CPR and an AED.

Brent Hetherington, CEO and founder of Premedex, said the experience was informative for many people.

“It seems like a whole other group of our population came into the realization that sudden cardiac arrest is real and it happens to healthy people, young people,” he said of the NFL incident. “We’re thankful there was a positive outcome and there’s more awareness, but we still have a long way to go with the general public understanding how important this is to have access to AEDs.”

Utah Code 26-8b-301 includes mandatory reporting of AED locations, and the Utah Safety Council encourages all organizations to have AEDs at their facilities.

Wilson McConkie was already familiar with AEDs from the annual training he and his co-workers receive at Fairfield Junior High School, where McConkie works as assistant principal. But he sees the devices much differently after watching one used on his son.

McConkie called AEDs “awesome technology” and said he wishes more people would know to use the devices right from the start of a cardiac incident. He also said he advocates for more employees at recreational centers and gyms to be trained on how to use AEDs.

“It does all the thinking for you; it gives you the instructions and everything. If a person doesn’t need help from the AED, it won’t work, but if they do need it, it will automatically send the shock,” he said. “If you have somebody that collapses, you call 911 and have somebody grab the AED.”

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13-year-old Utah boy’s traumatizing cardiac arrest leads to AED awareness