On the morning of March 26, 2008, Rebecca Knowles heard her husband cry for help from their son's bedroom. There, they found 7-year-old Cameron blue in the face and without a pulse after he tried to wake him up for school.
Knowles, a registered nurse in Rochester, N.Y., immediately began CPR, and the paramedics arrived soon after. Firefighters shocked Cameron's heart three times before it started to beat again.
Doctors later said that Cameron had been dead for more than 12 minutes before his parents found him. After several tests, doctors diagnosed Cameron with long Q-T syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder that can cause fast and chaotic heartbeats.
The rapid beats can cause seizures or fainting spells, and in some cases, the heart may beat so erratically that it can bring on sudden death.
"We didn't know he had underlying heart condition, and most people don't until something like this happens," said Knowles. "They almost always find this problem after someone has already arrested."
Knowles said that their home security alarm, which had accidentally gone off that morning, likely triggered Cameron's cardiac arrest.
An 8-year-old boy from Lincoln County, N.C., did not have the same fate as Cameron. After local emergency services received a call at 8 a.m. Thursday morning about a boy at Pumpkin Center Intermediate School who had difficulty breathing, the boy was rushed to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte. He died later that evening, according to local news station WBTV.
The boy's parents wish to keep his identity and the details of his case private.
While lethal heart problems in otherwise healthy children are rare, there are a number of conditions that could explain a sudden cardiac death or life-threatening heart attack in young patients.
The first important distinction to make is between a heart attack and cardiac arrest, says Dr. Amy Peterson, a pediatric cardiologist from American Family Children's Hospital in Madison, Wisc.
Heart attack occurs when there is an insufficient amount of blood delivering oxygen to the heart and part or all of the heart muscle begins to die. This could be due to blockages in the arteries, heart disease, or structural abnormalities of the heart muscle or the arteries. Cardiac arrest on the other hand refers simply to a heart that has lost its rhythm and stops beating, which could occur for a number of different reasons, she says.
"In general, heart attack in children is extraordinarily rare and when kids present with chest pain it is at the bottom of the list of things we suspect," Peterson says. Cardiac arrest is less rare but still very uncommon, she says, but there are a number of ways that parents can be on the lookout for undiagnosed heart conditions that may cause a problem
True heart attack in children can occur in rare circumstances where there is a genetic predisposition to exceptionally high cholesterol. In this case, a child who may or may not be overweight, can suffer from arterial blockages similar to those which cause heart attack in adults with hypercholesterolemia, Peterson says. In these cases, a family history of severe high cholesterol is the best indicator that a child might be at risk for this kind of problem.