Peter Lombardo, a teen with a passion for sport fishing, almost became the one that got away.

With no warning, he suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed in the gym at Caledonia High School.

With his heart racing erratically at close to 400 beats per minute and no blood circulating in his body, he could have died, if not for the quick actions of three teachers. They performed CPR and used an automated electronic defibrillator to save his life.

“It truly is a Christmas miracle,” says Peter’s mother, Jennifer.

His doctor agrees.

His teachers are angels.

Pete Lombardo
Peter’s father

“This is the very definition of a miracle,” says Emy Kuriakose, MD, a pediatric cardiologist with the Congenital Heart Center at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

Young people who suffer sudden cardiac arrest often don’t make it to the hospital. And those who do sometimes suffer long-lasting effects from prolonged time without blood flow.

But tests show no damage to Peter’s heart muscle or other organs.

“It’s phenomenal that he has no damage to his organs or to his brain,” Dr. Kuriakose says. “The fact that he is up walking and talking is truly remarkable.”

The last thing he remembers

Peter, a 17-year-old senior, seems an unlikely candidate for a heart condition. At 6-foot-1, weighing 200 pounds, he is a strong and active young man.

Although encouraged to play football, he doesn’t have much interest in competitive team sports. His dad calls him “a gentle giant.”

He prefers hunting and fishing, and even started a sport fishing club at his school.

On Monday morning, Dec. 5, he went to gym class, where he ran sprints and lifted weights―250 pounds at a time. After changing in the locker room, he headed across the gym toward the cafeteria for lunch.

That’s the last thing he remembers

When he collapsed, three health and physical education teachers rushed to his aid. Pat Gillies called 911. Bret Knoop began CPR. Phil Miedema ran to get the AED.

The device detected the wildly erratic heartbeat and delivered a life-saving shock to bring the heart into a steady rhythm.

“The fact that the AED was right there and the teachers were there at that moment to put the device on was really fortuitous,” Dr. Kuriakose said. “If he had stayed in that rhythm any longer he would have had some serious damage to the organs in his body and to his brain.

“The fact they were able to do it so quickly and it shocked him out of that rhythm was really a miracle.”

Peter remembers waking up on the gym floor.

“Mr. Gillies was saying ‘Hang in there. I just called 911,” he recalls.

Peter’s mother, Jennifer, was shopping when she received the call that every parent dreads. Someone from the high school told her, “Your son Peter collapsed. He had no heartbeat. 911 was called.”

She called her husband, who was at home, and he hurried to the school. She met them at the Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital emergency department as the ambulance arrived.

Peter surprised his medical team with his quick rebound. By Monday evening, he felt strong enough to walk a couple of laps around the intensive care unit.

His main concern was keeping up with school work. A student with a grade point average above a 4.0, he takes several advanced placement courses.

His mother tried to give him a reality check: “I said, ‘Peter, you died. They had to bring you back to life. I think your teachers will understand.”

A search for a cause

Christopher Ratnasamy, MD, did a complete electrophysiology study of the young man’s heart to look for sources of abnormal rhythm. He found one, which is being treated with medication, Dr. Kuriakose said.

To prevent further problems, Peter underwent surgery Thursday to receive an implantable cardioverter defibrillator. Dr. Ratnasamy implanted the small device under the skin in Peter’s chest. It connects with a wire to his heart. If the heartbeat becomes erratic or runs too fast or slow, the device will send an electrical impulse to bring it back into rhythm.

Peter is undergoing genetic testing as his medical team investigates the cause of his heart troubles. His parents and his younger siblings, 15-year-old Maddie and 13-year-old Michael, are being tested to see if they have a similar heart condition.

His grandfather, Gino Lombardo, is on the list for a heart transplant, after suffering cardiogenic shock two years ago.

I’m forever thankful. It’s something I will never forget.

Peter Lombardo

On Friday, as Peter prepared to go home from the hospital, he and his family struggled to comprehend what happened.

“This still is so surreal,” his mother says.

“I’m still in shock,” Peter says. “If anybody told me, ‘This was going to happen to you,’ I would have told them they were crazy.”

They count their blessings―grateful that the cardiac arrest occurred in a time and place where he could receive immediate help.

“I was lucky,” Peter says. “It could have happened anywhere else. At home―we don’t have an AED. Most buildings don’t have an AED.”

His doctors say he likely can return to school next Friday. Peter looks forward to seeing the teachers who saved his life.

“I’m forever thankful,” he says. “It’s something I will never forget.”

His father, Pete Lombardo, becomes emotional as he speaks of his gratitude to the men who saved his son’s life.

“Every time I think about it, I break down,” he says. “His teachers are angels. Those three guys, as well trained as they are and the actions they took―it’s truly amazing.”