When 12-year-old Emily Harmon was born, her mother, Tanya, said doctors knew she had a problem with her heart, but just what the problem was, they weren’t sure. At seven days old, little Emily was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) Syndrome, a condition that causes the heart’s electrical system to fire too quickly. In Emily’s case, her heart rate would sometimes accelerate to more than 250 beats per minute (BPM). Normal infant waking heart rate is 100-190 BPM, which drops to 60-100 BPM by the time a child reaches the age of 12.
“Initially, they were able to correct the condition using medication,” said Tanya, “but by the time she was two they had to do a catheter procedure (Cardiac Ablation, a procedure to kill cells responsible for defective electrical impulses and return heart function to normal).”
The ablation was successful, making it possible for Emily to live a relatively normal life, even though her heart function went into a slow decline. In 2016, Emily, now 10, was diagnosed as being in heart failure, and in January 2017, she was placed on the transplant list for a new heart.
“We knew for a long time that she would need a transplant someday, but whether she would need it at six or at 26, nobody could say for sure,” said Tanya.
Because of her declining condition, it was decided that Emily would stay in the hospital, where her condition could be closely monitored, until a donor heart was located. Although the wait time for a donor heart averages about four months, a new heart for Emily was found within just a few hours.
“She was on the transplant list for just 10-and-a-half hours,” Tanya said. “We were prepared to stay at [Arkansas Children’s Hospital] for however long it took. We were settling in and suddenly it was, we got the call!”
Today, Tanya said Emily is a happy, healthy, and normal pre-teen, for the most part. She has to take anti-rejection drugs and will have to submit to frequent check-ups and testing for the rest of her life, but Tanya said now she has a good chance at living a normal life. She did say particular care must be taken to keep Emily from contracting flu or any other type of infection.
“The flu could put her right back in the hospital, so we take extra care about that,” she said. “We even had to pull her out of school at Christmas. She’s still enrolled, but she’s doing make-up work because any kind of bug can put her in the hospital.”
Shortly after the conclusion of the ceremony, Emily could be seen next to her poster, posing and snapping selfies with her cell phone to mark the occasion. Just like any 12-year-old.
Rachel Hampton of Lonoke had no idea she was at risk for heart disease until May of 2014. Living in the Dallas area at the time, she had a massive heart attack that, had she not been in the emergency room when it occurred, would have resulted in her immediate death. As it was, she very nearly didn’t survive. She was 32.
“I had what is known as the Widowmaker,” said Rachel, “I had a 90 year old man heart attack because of a 100 percent blockage in my LAD (left anterior descending coronary artery). During that time I coded and I died right there on the table. I was brought back but was in a coma for two months. It was a very serious and horrible process but now I’m better and healthier, probably healthier than the average person. ”
Rachel said her symptoms were typical, including a crushing pain in her chest that had begun some time before, but never showed up on an EKG (electrocardiogram – a diagnostic tool that measures electrical activity in the heart).
“I had extreme chest pain right in the middle that felt like my heart was being ripped out of my chest. That got me going to the hospital and right when I got in the ER, I coded, it was that close,” Rachel said. “Also, I rejected my stent, my body rejected it and I had a second heart attack. This time, though, I had an extreme burning in my back, between my shoulder blades, but nothing I’d connect with a heart attack. Just that burning, there and in my jaw.”
What saved Rachel’s brain from damage, and probably her life, was a relatively unknown procedure called “Therapeutic Hypothermia,” where doctors deliberately cool the body’s core temperature to about 91 degrees Fahrenheit, which drastically reduces the need for oxygen by the brain and other organs. Uses of the procedure actually date back to Hippocrates around 400 B.C., as he advocated packing wounded Roman soldiers in ice.
Rachel’s husband, Chad Hampton, a mortician at Boyd Funeral Home in Lonoke, described the drama that took place in the emergency room as harrowing.
“They got her on the table, put her on an EKG and it was fine, so they took blood to run some tests, I turned to give the nurse some information and when I turned back around, she was laying on the table, dead,” Chad recalled. “They hit her, used the paddles, and they kept working and working. The curtains were open so everyone in the waiting room could see this. They kept working on her and I first wanted to hit them in the mouth, it took me a moment to realize they were trying to save her life.”
Chad said Rachel was soon moved to a treatment room and he was placed in a hallway where he was shortly joined by a hospital chaplain.
“Thirty minutes later the doc came out and said, ‘I’m so sorry. I thought she was gone.’ I broke down then, and he said, ‘I’m sorry you had to see that.’ From that moment on we’ve been building back. This is something that, we’re not supposed to experience this that young. This is supposed to be happening to my grandmother, not my wife. And what really startled me was that this can happen to anybody.”
One day after being discharged from the hospital, Rachel had a second heart attack, brought on when her body rejected the stent. After placement of another stent, she then began the process of recovery, and Chad said her zest for life since then has been nothing short of remarkable.
“You know, she wasn’t a chef before this happened but now, that woman can cook!” he exclaimed. “She has grabbed life, and now, seeing that, and working in the funeral home business, we appreciate life every single morning we wake up. One day we’ll have to face what we have to face but I’m so lucky to have her right now. We’ve got our 12, 10, and 8 year old babies growing up, and you know, she’s an amazing story. What she had to fight through and battle through, she’s an amazing story. We can tell people who have had a heart attack to hang in there and fight. The tears will come, the prayers will come too, but you’ve got to get in there and fight for it every single day. We’ve been given this breath, we’ve got to use it. People need to know there is life after this.”