Abu Dhabi: Doctors, CPR-trained mom save boy with rare heart disease who suffered cardiac arrest in pool

The unusual congenital heart condition, called Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) Syndrome, affects just 1 to 3 people per 1,000 worldwide

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Supplied photos
Supplied photos

Ashwani Kumar

Published: Tue 2 May 2023, 9:58 AM

Last updated: Tue 2 May 2023, 2:40 PM

A multi-disciplinary approach by doctors in Abu Dhabi and a timely rescue act by a mother trained in giving CPR has saved the life of her 11-year-old boy who suffered a cardiac arrest while in a swimming pool.

Following another cardiac arrest, Leonardo Osorio McGeehan was diagnosed with a rare congenital heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) Syndrome – affecting just 1 to 3 per 1,000 people worldwide. At Burjeel Medical City, Leonardo, a Scottish-Mexican grade 5 student, underwent a successful paediatric radiofrequency ablation to treat the condition, and is recovering well.

This is an unusual case where doctors, police, paramedics, community members and an alert parent played a key role in saving a boy suffering from a WPW condition, which leads to a fast heartbeat, and in this instance resulted in a sudden cardiac arrest.

Recollecting the horrifying incident at their residential compound on Saadiyat Island, Martina, the boy's mother, said: “We were tossing a ball in the pool when my son said he was not feeling well and started going underwater. With the help of my daughter and a couple at the pool, we got him out of the water. He was struggling to breathe, and his eyes were rolling back. It seemed like he was having a seizure. I immediately started performing CPR.”

Police escort for ambulance

Martina, now a homemaker, had undergone training for the life-saving cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) during her job as a physical therapist in the UK.

On the unfortunate day, the unpredictable sequence of events become more dramatic when, in a state of panic Martina dialled 999 – the number for emergency services in the UK, from where she hailed – but here in the Capital, it was Abu Dhabi Police at the other end. However, in no time, police arrived with an ambulance.

“Being a UK citizen, I dialled 999 thinking it was the ambulance, but it connected me to the Abu Dhabi Police instead. I told the officer my son had lost consciousness and was not breathing and asked for help. By then, people from the building had gathered around and were helping us out,” said Martina, who continued performing chest compressions till the police and the ambulance arrived.

After the paramedics took over CPR from the mother, they used the defibrillator to shock him and stabilise his airway on the way to a nearby hospital in Abu Dhabi City. Martina was escorted to the hospital by police. Leonardo was shifted to the ICU and intubated. Further investigations revealed Leonardo had WPW syndrome, caused by an abnormality in the heart’s electrical pathways.

For advanced care, he was shifted to Burjeel Medical City in Mohamed Bin Zayed City where he was to be treated by Dr Christopher Duke, consultant paediatric cardiologist.

Second case in more than 20 years

Explaining the rare disorder, Dr Duke noted a WPW patient would have an extra piece of muscle inside their heart causing abnormal electricity.

“Children with this syndrome usually present with palpitations, and it is very rare for such patients to suffer a cardiac arrest.”

Dr Duke, one of the few experts in paediatric electrophysiology in the UAE, pointed out that in his career of more than two decades, this was only his second case of a WPW patient suffering a cardiac arrest.

“We decided to perform a paediatric radiofrequency ablation to treat the condition,” said Dr Duke.

Special preparations were made to perform the procedure, including having teams of surgical, paediatric ICU, and paediatric extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) – artificial life support system, on standby.

The procedure involved inserting a tube into a vein through a small cut near the groin up to the heart area. When the tip reaches the heart, the small area that is causing the fast heart rate is destroyed using a special type of energy called radiofrequency, or by freezing it.

The multidisciplinary team of experts formed to do the procedure comprised Dr Duke, Dr Jayakeerthi Yoganarasimha Rao, consultant cardiology, electrophysiology and heart failure, Dr Kesava Ananth Ramakrishnan, consultant paediatric intensive care unit, Dr Taj Mohammed Fiyaz Chowdhry, consultant thoracic surgeon, and Dr Imthiaz Ahamed Manoly, consultant cardiac surgery.

Dr Duke, assisted by Dr Rao, successfully performed the procedure in 2.5 hours. Leonardo has recovered well, and is now cured of the congenital condition, but needs monitoring through periodic check-ups.

Get trained in CPR, first aid

Martina advises parents to never leave children unattended in a pool, and also get trained in CPR and first aid.

“My son is a strong swimmer and was perfectly healthy till this incident. So, when he started going down into the water, I knew it was not a typical drowning. My basic knowledge of CPR came in handy, although I never thought I would use what I learnt on my own son.

He would not be alive today if not for all the help we had. The people at our building, the Abu Dhabi Police, the paramedics, and the doctors and nurses – they all helped save his life.”

Martina, a UAE resident for five years, is grateful to the medical team at the hospital.

“Leonardo is doing very well now. We are overawed at the service we received from Dr Duke and the team at Burjeel Medical City. The speed at which they put together the team was unbelievable,” she added.


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