Teen's Fatal Cardiac Arrest Encourages Screenings and Saves Another Teen's Life

PHOTO: Blake EnglishPlayWFAA/ABC News
WATCH Teen's Sudden Death Saves Another's Life

Janice English's phone rang at 4:30 a.m. on December 29, 2006. It was one of her son's friends. Something was wrong with Blake.

He had been at a slumber party and, after a night of goofing around and break dancing, Blake, then a 14-year-old from Richardson, Texas, told his friends that his chest was killing him. It hurt so badly that he threw up in the bathroom.

His friends tried to help him as the pain grew worse. Blake collapsed and began to shake violently. After calling 911, the paramedics told his friends to begin CPR. When English arrived at the hospital, Blake was already gone.

She called her lifelong best friend, Nina Strenk. Strenk was the first to arrive at the hospital on that fateful morning.

"As a mother, my biggest fear was that someone would take him and hurt him," said English. "In my mind, never would I have though that God would take him from me."

Doctors told English that Blake died of sudden cardiac arrest. For the following year, English said she "felt numb" and she had to "learn to breathe again."

But later she would learn that her tragic experience may have saved the life of at least one other young person close to her.

When she did learn to breathe again, English began volunteering at Parent Heart Watch, a group based in Fort Worth, Texas, that seeks to protect kids and teens from sudden cardiac arrest by encouraging them to be screened for heart conditions.

"Volunteering gives me a purpose and a reason to get up in the morning," said English. "And I've been able to talk to other parents who lost their child the way I did, and has just been humongous-- electrifying."

A couple of years after Blake's death, English was volunteering at a free EKG screening for high school athletes in the Dallas area. She had encouraged Strenk to join her in volunteering and urged her to take advantage of the opportunity to have her kids screened.

"Nina had come to help and honor Blake," said English. "And I told her, 'This is free. Get your kids up here.' I told them to do it for Blake."

Strenk's daughter, Ally, then 16, had grown up with Blake. She agreed to go to the Saturday screening, if only to appease her mom and mom's best friend.

After Ally was screened, Strenk said, "I knew immediately that something was wrong because of the look on the doctor's face. Something wasn't right."

That day, Ally was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a heart condition in which there is an extra electrical pathway in the heart. The condition can lead to episodes of rapid heart rate. The erratic beats can cause palpitations, dizziness lightheadedness, fainting, and sometimes even sudden death.

"She's never really had any issues, so for that to come up when she was 16 years old was shocking," said Strenk. "I was shocked and really thankful that we had been screened and had the opportunity to get that EKG."

Within the next week, doctors performed a cardiac ablation, a procedure that can correct heart rhythm problems by using long tubes, threaded down a vein to the heart to fix any structural problems causing arrhythmias.

Within a few months, doctors corrected the condition.

"She was completely cured," said English. "It's a beautiful story. Doctors told her, 'You get to go live a wonderful life and you never have to worry about this again.'"

"I'm so thankful for Janice and for Blake," said Strenk. "I feel like he had a hand in potentially saving Ally's life. We just wouldn't have known anything without that EKG."

Screenings Save Lives

About 400 teenagers were screened the same day Ally was diagnosed. Along with Ally, English said nine other boys found out they had some sort of irregular heart condition.

"We're talking about a human being's most vital organ," said Martha Lopez-Anderson, president of Parent Heart Watch, who also lost a son to sudden cardiac arrest. "We screen our children's hearing and vision, but some people in the medical community do not think that the heart is worthy of being screened. That's disturbing."

English now advocates for EKG screenings of all children through Parent Heart Watch. She encourages parents to ask their children how they're feeing. And she believes the screenings should be a part of standard physical routines.

"I think every single parent should have their child screened," said English. This is a silent killer. It just happens."

According to the American Heart Association, sudden cardiac arrest affects about 300,000 Americans each year. Brain death and permanent death occur within four to six minutes after cardiac arrest occurs so it is crucial to correct any sort of heart malfunction quickly.

"If I can honor Blake and help someone else, that's pretty great," said English. "Through Blake's death, Ally was saved."