Kevin Carpenter celebrates with his wife, Paula, and daughters Amber (left) and Autumn (right), after the 2008 marathon. photo courtesy Jiho Han
In the middle of a 5-mile treadmill run at the Midlothian YMCA in July 2007, Kevin Carpenter turned his head to his 20-year-old daughter, Amber, who was on the elliptical beside him. Looking into her eyes, he whispered, "I hope you know CPR."
His body went limp, the treadmill kept running and he dove backward, slamming his head into the side of the machine. The then 47-year-old marathon runner went into sudden cardiac arrest. His heart stopped pumping blood, he stopped breathing and within seconds, he lost consciousness.
"People who have sudden cardiac arrest often have no warning," says Dr. Jiho Han with Virginia Cardiovascular Specialists. "That's why it's such a tragedy."
Sudden cardiac death (SCD) is the leading cause of natural death in the U.S., claiming the lives of 250,000 to 350,000 Americans each year, according to the Heart Rhythm Society. While heart attacks block blood to the heart, sudden cardiac arrests stop the heart.
Although running and other aerobic exercises dramatically lower mortality risks, there are rare instances of SCD among runners. Jim Fixx, runner and author of some of the most definitive books on the running boom of the ‘70s, died from sudden cardiac arrest. The Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation cites a study showing that of more than 3.2 million runners, 26 had sudden cardiac death, equivalent to 0.8 deaths per 100,000 runners.
Luckily for Carpenter, a volunteer firefighter who was on his way out the door saw him fall and rushed over to help. The firefighter, assisted by a doctor who had been waiting for his son in the lobby, shocked Carpenter's heart back to life with the automated external defibrillator that the YMCA had recently installed in the gym. "I believe that God had a hand in everyone being there," says the now 50-year-old IT professional.
Carpenter was wheeled into the intensive care unit of CJW Medical Center's Levinson Heart Hospital where Han and Dr. David Gilligan, a cardiac electrophysiologist with Virginia Cardiovascular Specialists, attached him to a ventilator. Han, Gilligan and Carpenter had met before — all three were on the Sports Backers marathon training team for the SunTrust Richmond Marathon.
"We were on the same team, but we didn't know each other," Carpenter says, adding with a playful jibe, "I was running faster than [Han]."
For two days, Carpenter fought for his life in the ICU, tossing spastically in the hospital bed as he lay unconscious in a coma. A heart catheterization showed that he had severe left main coronary artery stenosis, sometimes referred to as left main disease or the widow maker. The main artery supplying blood to his heart was blocked, and when he exercised, it caused his heart to go out of rhythm.
The Midlothian resident had no family history of heart attacks and says he never felt irregular palpitations when he worked out. He once fainted in a hotel room in Colorado after a run in December 2006, but he thought it was caused by the thinner air. Looking back, his heart probably went into an irregular beat or arrhythmia — a precursor of what was to come.
Carpenter was stuck at the hospital, waiting about four weeks while his brain healed from hitting it on the side of the treadmill, before he underwent cardiac bypass surgery. "I remember lying in the hospital on Saturday mornings and thinking about the training team, wondering if Jiho and David were out there running."
On the day of the 2007 Richmond marathon, Carpenter went out to the race at 6 a.m. to cheer on his teammates. That day, he vowed he'd be running through the finish the next year, and when training started in June 2008, Carpenter was ready.
"I just wanted to prove to myself that I had overcome this thing," he recalls.
But doctors weren't as optimistic. As the race approached, Carpenter passed a traditional stress test, but his heart was not normal. His ejection fraction, the percentage of blood in his heart that leaves the organ with each beat, was reduced, and his heart was going into premature ventricular contractions.
"In all honesty, I would not have encouraged [Kevin] to run that marathon," Han says.
But Carpenter would not be swayed. His wife, Paula, insisted that if he was to run the marathon, Han had to run with him.
"I was more of a magical token than real insurance," Han later wrote in an essay about the race.
A few months before the race, the ZOLL LifeVest arrived at Levinson. The wearable external defibrillator was meant for sedentary patients, but Han wanted to try it on Carpenter as a precaution during the race. The two had a successful first trial with the vest in a 7-mile Halloween training run through Hollywood Cemetery.
The day of the 2008 Richmond Marathon was warm and humid. When rain started falling in the middle of the race, Han worried about Carpenter running with a battery pack with electrodes applied to the skin capable of delivering 150 joules of shock.
"From a physician's standpoint, I think Kevin is incredibly courageous," Han says. "When we ran, I was really hurting in the last few miles. If it weren't for Kevin, I would've slowed down or quit. He was in better shape than I was."
Now, three years later, Carpenter is a coach for the Sports Backers half-marathon training team. At this year's race, Nov. 12, he'll run with his team, the Kangaroos, for parts of the race, and he'll run with each member of his team through the finish line.
"You can't just crawl up in a corner," he says. "I figured if I was able to make it through once, God must have a purpose for me."