April 15, 2013 -- An 8-year-old Rohnert Park, Calif., boy nearly died of cardiac arrest after being struck by a baseball pitch Sunday. A husband and wife watching the youth league game were credited with saving his life
The boy, who was not identified, had stopped breathing and had no pulse, but emergency crews shocked his heart with a defibrillator and got it beating again. He was taken by helicopter to Oakland Children's Hospital and was in stable condition.
"I was right behind the plate and this kid got hit in the heart with the ball," 14-year-old umpire Trenton Starrett, told ABC's affiliate KGO. "He went to first, like he tripped once, and he got back up, and then fell again, and then he didn't get back up."
Medical experts say the boy would likely have died if the couple, who were off-duty paramedics, had not responded so quickly.
"Clearly everyone involved who put their hands on the boy saved his life," said Aaron D. Johnson, director of operations for the Cal Ripken Baseball League.
"He was down for 30 seconds before someone got onto him and did CPR for five minutes, and then the department of public safety arrived with a defibrillator," he told ABCNews.com.
"I have two small children, and you shouldn't have to worry about a kid in the batter's box with a helmet on," said Dr. Nicholas Kman, associate professor of emergency medicine at The Ohio State University Medical Center.
The boy experienced ventricular fibrillation, caused by commotio cordis, which translates from Latin to mean agitation of the heart, according to Kman.
The condition causes ventricular fibrillation and sudden death. Just last week, 16-year-old Taylor Dorman of San Diego died after taking a direct hit in the heart from a softball, according to ABC 15.
Dorman was in physical education class playing "over the line" -- a game similar to softball. Twenty minutes after the blow, he dropped to the ground.
Sudden death from commotio cordis occurs in about 200 children a year in the United States, according to a 2010 article in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The condition is triggered by a "blunt, nonpenetrating, and often innocent-appearing unintentional blow to the chest without damage to the ribs, sternum, or heart (and in the absence of underlying cardiovascular disease)," according to the article.
The term commotio cordis was first used in the 19th century, but has been described by ancient Chinese martial arts specialists as "touch of death."
"It's thought that if the ball or projectile hits his chest wall at the right spot at the right timing of the heart, it causes arrhythmia," said Kman. "This happens in a normal heart, not a structurally impaired heart."
Commotio cordis is uncommon, but should always be considered an emergency, according to Dr. Benjamin Abella, director of clinical research in the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania. "It has a high mortality rate."
The chances of dying are greater without defibrillation. If blood flow is not restored quickly, death or brain damage can result.
"Commotio cordis commonly occurs in sporting situations," said Abella. "A baseball can be quite a strong projectile, and it's very important that the league coach and staff at a school be aware of this."
He said the condition can occur outside of sports, in industrial settings. A recent case of cardiac arrest involved a soldier in Iraq who was hit by a fire extinguisher in the chest.
Automatic external defibrillators or AEDs can be "absolutely life-saving," according to Abella.
"You need at least an electrical shock, but if that is not available, provide CPR first, then call 911," he said. "It will not reverse it, but will keep the blood moving enough until you get a defibrillator. It buys you time."
Now Rohnert Park's league director Johnson said his board is looking for funds to buy AEDs for their ball parks and perhaps heart guards for the young players.
"We have a board meeting tonight and that's the number one item on the agenda," said Johnson. "This is very traumatizing to a baseball community like ours."
States including Texas and New York have made advances in requiring AEDs in public settings, according to Dr. Paul Pepe, professor of emergency medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
"It's made a difference and this is a real example," he said of the Rohnert Park incident. "Many places have them but it's important to know, one, where it is, and two, to basically turn it on and follow the directions. It's the easiest thing in the world."