Mark Story: High schooler's near-death experience forgotten, but its effects linger

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 24, 2012 

Ben Highland has no memory of the day his heart, without warning, just flat stopped.

Ben does not recall leaving Jessie Clark Middle School last Feb. 6 to take part in pre-season baseball workouts at Lafayette High School. He does not remember any of the drills Coach Chris Langston put the baseball aspirants through.

Ben, 14 years old at the time, does not recall collapsing to the ground.

He did not hear Langston call Lafayette athletics trainer Jenni Williams on her cellphone and implore her to come running.

Ben does not remember being shocked by the external defibrillator they used to try to get his heart beating.

He has no memory of Williams performing old-fashioned CPR on him, nor does he remember the nurse who just happened past while walking her dog and helped try to resuscitate him.

Ben does not remember when the ambulance and the paramedics got there.

He did not see his friend Brendan Stockwell run to the parking lot where Carey Highland, Ben's mom, was waiting in her car to tell her something was very wrong.

Ben does not remember them cutting through a chain-link fence to get him to the ambulance, nor any part of the ride to University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital.

He does not recall when the paramedics finally got his heart started again.

That first scary night in the hospital, Ben did not know that a doctor would warn his mother that her son had "a 2 percent chance of surviving" his sudden cardiac arrest. Nor that if he did survive, Carey then had "a 2 percent chance of having her son as she knew him (before)."

He does not remember the sheer exhilaration his family felt when he first regained consciousness in the hospital. Nor does he recall the alarm they experienced when they realized that, initially, Ben's short-term memory was pretty much gone.

"He knew us, but if he said, 'Can I have a Coke?' and you got him a Coke, he wouldn't remember and would say, 'Can I have a Coke?' again like, two seconds later," Carey says. "And what made that so scary is, we didn't know if that was what we would be dealing with from then on."

Ben has no recollection of the morning, three days after his heart stopped, when a nurse entered his hospital room, asked him his name and where he was?

He does not recall that he correctly answered "Ben Highland" and "at the hospital."

"That was when I first really felt like, 'OK, this is going to be OK,'" Carey Highland says.

Ben Highland can pinpoint the exact moment his life, right down to what sports he is allowed to play, changed forever.

He just can't remember it.

'Very rare in teenagers'

Ben Highland was on the front edge of what has been an alarming local trend in 2012.

Sudden cardiac arrest — a condition in which the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating, thus causing blood to stop flowing to the brain and other vital organs — is exceedingly rare among young people.

Yet Ben's was the first of five cases involving school-aged kids, three in Lexington, one in Georgetown, one in Somerset, in this area this year. One of the incidents ended with a fatality.

"This is very rare in teenagers," says Dr. Anna N. Kamp, a pediatric electrophysiologist at Kentucky Children's Hospital and a University of Kentucky assistant professor of pediatrics who is Ben's doctor.

"Ben was the first, but in about a six-month period, we had five kids arrest with no known cardiac diseases. It is just a coincidence, and it is very, very rare."

In Ben's case, doctors still do not know what caused his heart to stop.

"His heart, by imaging studies, is completely normal," Kamp says. "What we think is, he just has an abnormality of the electrical production system in his heart."

When one's heart has stopped for undefined reasons, one way to try to ensure that never happens again is through the installation of an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator. An ICD is a small device often placed in the chest or abdomen that monitors the heartbeat and shocks it back to normalcy if it stops.

Ultimately, that is the course Ben's parents chose for his treatment.

"When Dr. Kamp came in at first (and said), 'We need to think about the ICD,' I was like 'There's no way we are going to do that. That's for the rest of his life,'" says Roy Highland, Ben's father. "After sitting down and talking about it, we were like 'Yeah, we're going to do that.' It's really the only option we had. If you don't know what caused (the heart to stop), you have to protect them."

For Ben, the device that should protect him from another sudden cardiac arrest had one big downside. A boy who loved everything about being a baseball catcher saw his dreams of playing in high school ended.

Instead, his friends and family have pitched him on the idea of taking up golf.

A white light?

It perhaps only seems like everyone in Fayette County has asked Ben if, during the period in which his heart was stopped, he saw the "white light" often mentioned in near-death experiences.

"I just tell people I don't remember anything," Ben says. "So I could have seen a white light, but I don't remember."

Kamp, the UK doctor, says Ben's inability to recall his sudden cardiac arrest and its immediate aftermath "is most likely medical. He was unconscious during the arrest and resuscitation, so there would be no recollection of that. Once his rhythm was restored, he was on a ventilator (and) sedated."

The voice of Langston, the Lafayette baseball coach, still cracks when he talks about Ben. "I'm still emotional about it," he says. "Thankfully, there was someone else looking over him."

Donnie Adkins, the athletics director for Fayette County Public Schools, says the school board's policy of having a certified athletic trainer in place at each high school "paid off in the most important way it could have in what happened (with Ben). Jenni Williams is the poster child for what we want in that role."

Ben's parents give credit to Williams and the CPR she performed before the paramedics arrived for ultimately saving their son's life. "Jenni gave me the greatest Christmas present anyone could," Carey Highland says. "She gave me back my son."

Ben chose to attend Henry Clay this school year as a freshman to get a fresh start.

Once his ICD was implanted, one of the restrictions placed on Ben was no contact sports. At first, he tried to stay in baseball, moving from catcher to first base, but concerns about insurance liability helped cut that short.

"I had so many restrictions, it wasn't fun anymore," Ben says of baseball.

With his first sports love gone, Ben's maternal grandfather, Ercel Ellis, the longtime Lexington radio personality, began pitching golf as an outlet for his grandson's competitive drive.

"At first Ben was like 'Nah,' but then he was like. 'You know, I'm going to give this a try,'" Carey Highland says. "He just started playing in July. And he broke a 100 a couple of times already."

Ben, now 15, is taking golf lessons from instructor Tyrus York.

"The guts he's shown in his life, his desire to be really good, that's the big thing he's got going for him," York says. "He's got potential to be good."

With baseball benched, Ben's new sports goal is to play high school golf for Henry Clay. "That's what I'm working toward right now," he says.

After all he's been through, if Ben Highland can pull that off, it would be memorable.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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