PaperTexture - 'He had no pulse': Family recounts moments son almost died at football practice

‘He had no pulse’: Family recounts moments son almost died at football practice

Stephanie Kuzydym
Louisville Courier Journal

BARDSTOWN, Ky. − Carson Dickey nestled into the family room couch, avoiding eye contact with anyone but Jack, the family dachshund.

His dad Charlie looks at Carson knowing more about the anatomy of the heart than he did a month ago, able to speak like an expert about a heart condition that nearly took his son with no warning.

His mother Brittany rubs Carson’s back with her left hand. One of the hardest moments of her life was letting go of her baby boy to allow an electrical current to shock his heart from an automated external defibrillator — or AED — in hopes it would restart his pulse. She half-jokingly swears she’ll never let Carson out of her sight.

His sister Mackenzie nods in agreement at her little brother’s strength. As he lost oxygen when his heart stopped beating, she saw him turn a color she hopes she never sees again.

Jack seems content to just have his favorite human back to snuggle, no idea that the quick response of some middle school football coaches and an athletic trainer saved Carson’s life back on June 20th.

But the whole family can’t help but wonder: What if.

What if Carson had been riding his bike when he collapsed from the undetected heart condition?

What if he had been a student somewhere besides Old Kentucky Middle School, whose football field backs up to the base of Nelson County High School? What if the high school’s athletic trainer hadn’t been at the school that mid-summer day and sprinted to the side of a middle schooler she didn’t know? What if the coaches hadn’t followed the venue-specific emergency action plan? What if the school didn’t think multiple AEDs were in their budget and Carson hadn’t received a shock?

What if …

Brittany Dickey sharply sips in the air. She doesn’t want to think of that result, the one where her baby boy didn’t come back home.

She knows now if an AED hadn’t shocked his heart, the cardiologist said Carson wouldn’t be here.

Instead, he came home from Norton Children’s Hospital on June 28, Brittany’s birthday.

The best gift in the world for a mama.

But the Dickeys have become aware those ‘what ifs’ haven’t always turned into a save for other athletes and their parents.

They now know there have been at least three other athletes in the state and hundreds nationally who have collapsed and not received gold-standard care − and never come home.

Almost no middle school athletes have access to an athletic trainer. In April, Kentucky governor Andy Beshear signed House Bill 331 in April into law that says schools should have an AED. But the governor couldn’t mandate it because schools responded that they wouldn’t be able to afford the $1,000 device that lasts, on average, for 10 years.

While Charlie knows some people may think $1,000 is a lot of money, he and Brittany think all schools need to have AEDs for athletics.

“Those seconds and those minutes really mean a lot,” Brittany said.

“They matter,” Charlie said.

The Dickeys are thankful there are multiple AEDs at Nelson Co. High School, but wonder what about the middle school campus?

Carson’s story is a shining example of what happens when the proper policies, procedures and personnel are in place. They want to retell his story as a way of living through the unthinkable.

The unthinkable happened

A Nelson County mother was having a normal Tuesday morning in June while her 13-year-old son was at football practice.

Brittany was heading home from Kroger with Mackenzie, a load of groceries in the trunk, when her cell phone rang.

It was only about 30 minutes into football conditioning, why was Carson calling her?

She answered. It wasn’t the voice of her sweet son, but Old Kentucky Home football coach Willie Moore.

“Does Carson have any heart issues?” Moore said.

“What?” Brittany responded.

Her baby boy? Heart issues? Nobody in the family had heart issues. He just finished the seventh grade. He couldn’t be healthier.

“No,” she said. “What’s wrong?”

“Carson went down,” Moore said calmly. “He’s unresponsive. EMS is on the way.”

Brittany threw on her flashers and pulled her white SUV into the middle lane of Bloomfield Road in Bardstown. She was less than two miles from the middle school. She turned left and heard the groceries slam against the side of the vehicle. She didn’t care. Eggs can be replaced. Her son cannot.

“I put wings on my car,” she said. “I flew to that school.”

As she ran to the field, she saw a woman running down the hill from the high school, carrying a neon yellow device.

They both ran across the football field of Old Kentucky Home Middle School, past a huddle of teenage boys down on one knee, to coaches who were administering CPR to a baby-faced boy who was starting to turn blue.

“He had no pulse,” Brittany said. “Watching them do CPR, I felt helpless. I kept shaking him. I was like, ‘Carson, you’ve got to wake up. C’mon Carson, you’ve got to keep fighting.'”

That woman with the device was Brittany Woodward, the Nelson County High School athletic trainer, carrying the AED. An athletic trainer is the healthcare professional of the sidelines.

Only 34 percent of high schools nationally have a full-time athletic trainer. That often leaves gaps in health care coverage surrounding practice and conditioning at the high school level. And coverage at the middle school level? That percent is likely in the single digits.

The Korey Stringer Institute, which collects the data on high schools, said there aren’t enough middle school athletic trainers to even be able to track the data.

In April, the Courier Journal released an investigation into sudden death in high school athletes that debunked the argument schools couldn’t afford an AED for athletics by breaking down the per-participant cost of an AED across the commonwealth.

The cost to add an AED is less than $10 per participant for 99% of schools. The average cost per participant statewide was $3.07. At Nelson County, where athletic expenses were just over $254,000 for 534 participants, the cost per participant for an AED is just $1.87.

Carson Dickey was in cardiac arrest due to a heart condition that no one knew he had: Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome or WPW.

When speaking about the heart, medical experts often refer to heart conditions as an electrical issue or plumbing issue. WPW is an electrical issue, where the heart has an extra electrical pathway at birth that can cause rapid heartbeats. Dr. Soham Dasgupta, a pediatric cardiologist with Norton Children’s Heart Institute, compared the pathways of the heart to freeways.

A normal heart has a freeway that goes from the top to the bottom, he said comparing the beats of the heart to vehicles in traffic.

On a regular freeway — or heart — only so much traffic can travel at one time because there’s a speed limit (or max heart rate).

In a heart with Wolff-Parksinon-White Syndrome, there’s an extra pathway − or exit − without a speed limit. The cars might all suddenly go faster or significantly slower. This leads to heart arrhythmia. or an issue with the rhythm of a heartbeat.

“If Carson had a normal electrical connection, 300-400 beats would never make it down the freeway to the bottom of the heart,” Dasgupta said.

That’s likely what was happening to Carson when he collapsed.

WPW is rarely inherited. And in Carson’s case, he was likely born with the heart condition.

A test that might have caught a condition − like an EKG − isn’t covered by most insurances without a pre-existing condition.

“I don’t care if you go into debt for it,” Charlie said. “If it can save someone’s life, especially your child’s life, it’s worth every penny.”

This is why so many families of athletes who have died from undetected heart conditions push for heart screenings. Because none of those families knew their son or daughter had a pre-existing condition until they were gone.

“He’s had a physical before but they don’t, in all honesty, go in-depth,” Charlie said. “I think they should be more in-depth. Something like this is really only caught on an EKG. And an EKG, they just stick some sticky pads on your chest and record, if even for a couple minutes.”

And Dasgupta said a lot of people with WPW are never diagnosed.

“You’re not going to hear the issue with a stethoscope,” he said “Unless you do an electrocardiogram or EKG, you’re not going to see it. It’s like electrical wiring that sits behind the walls of our house, with insulation and walls surrounding it.”

Carson never complained his chest hurt.

But there’s a moment a month ago that kind of sticks with Charlie.

“He said his heart felt funny,” Charlie said.

“It felt like someone was going like this to my heart,” Carson said as he slowly wiggled his pointer, middle and ring fingers.

Charlie and Carson thought maybe it was something he ate. He never had the feeling again.

“The doctors told me, ‘Don’t beat yourself up over it.'” Charlie said. “It wasn’t alarming or like he ran up to me scared. If he was like, ‘Oh my god, my chest hurts.’ Then yes, he would have went to the ER.”

Carson doesn’t remember if he had any similar feelings in his heart on the day he collapsed. He doesn’t remember anything about that day or the day prior, at all.

“It had nothing to do with what he was doing at the time,” Charlie said. “He could have been asleep or watching tv or taking a shower or running on a football field.”

The Dickeys are grateful that in all the places it could have happened, it was on a football field that sits 200 yards from the back door of Nelson County High School where an athletic trainer has a master’s degree in emergency medical response.

“We feel very blessed for that,” Charlie said. “As strange as that may sound that he was in company of people who could save his life.”

Dasgupta said the difference between Carson surviving or not started with coaches who began CPR and an athletic trainer who didn’t hesitate to use the AED.

“We are not the first responders,” Dasgupta said of Carson’s team of cardiologists who performed his surgery. “It’s critical for training in the community and to have resources like CPR training and AEDs available to actually save lives.

“(Caron’s save) is a plea to have AEDs in every school, every gym. And not just an AED, but one that’s working, with batteries that have been checked and someone trained to use it,” the doctor said.

While Carson currently is restricted due to his heart surgery, once he is cleared, he can play whatever sport he wants, even if his mom and dad are still currently unsure about seeing him on another football field.

Brittany refers to June 20th as the worst day no parent should have to experience. She hopes they’re done with all matters of the heart for now.

“Except love,” Carson says with a smile, turning a football in his hands that the team signed and delivered to the hospital.

For now, he loves his family, baseball, his new PlayStation5 and his JackJack. And he loves the summer business he started − washing windows and mowing lawns. He has a regular customer even, a neighbor across the street. While Carson was in the hospital, they got an alert from their Ring doorbell; when they checked, that neighbor was mowing the Dickeys’ lawn.

They never knew how much the world loved their son until a normal Tuesday and an undetected heart condition collided.

“He was in the right place at the right time and those heroes were there,” Brittany Dickey said of the athletic trainer and coaches. “I’m very thankful the athletic trainer, Brittany, was up at the high school and came to the middle school. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have my son.”

Stephanie Kuzydym is an enterprise sports reporter, with a focus on the health and safety of athletes. She can be reached at Follow her for updates on Twitter at @stephkuzy.

‘He had no pulse’: Family recounts moments son almost died at football practice
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