After teen golfer’s heart stopped, life gave him another shot

Now this is unusual.

At a crowded table in a crowded Seattle restaurant, a high school junior and a 25-year-old woman take turns pulling down the collars of their shirts to show off the scars that serve as the visible reminders of life-changing events.

Grant Weinberg, an 18-year-old student at Grace Academy in Marysville, talks about someday getting a tattoo to cover his scar. Kayla Burt, the former Arlington High School and University of Washington basketball standout, just wishes her scar looked more like the clean 3-inch line on Grant’s chest. “I wish mine looked like that,” says Burt, who jokes that her thicker scar looks like a worm.

The surrounding restaurant patrons enjoy their enchiladas and tacos, their margaritas and mojitos, oblivious to their proximity to two walking miracles.

It has been nearly eight weeks since Grant Weinberg went into sudden cardiac arrest, and seven weeks since doctors put an implantable cardioverter defibrillator in his chest.

The device monitors the heart and, if it detects an irregular heartbeat, shocks the heart into a normal rhythm.

Dinner on this Monday night in Seattle’s Madison Park neighborhood is a chance for Grant and the rest of the Weinbergs — parents Chuck and Teresa, older sister Kimberly, 19, and younger brother Garrett, 16 — to meet Burt, who, if there is such a thing, is the local poster child for young athletes surviving cardiac arrest and living with an ICD.

This is all new to Weinberg and all part of life for Burt, who nearly died on Dec. 31, 2002, but managed to come back to play college basketball.

Back on course

When the high school state golf tournaments begin next week, hundreds of golfers will battle for state titles.

But the biggest winner in high school golf won’t be playing. Weinberg managed to rejoin the Grace Academy golf team in time to compete last week in the Northwest District Class 1B-2B tournament, but with a rusty game and a tired body, he failed to make the cut for state.

That’s fine with Weinberg, however, because he already beat death. And really, what’s a trophy at state when you’ve done that?

“This has given me perspective on life,” said Weinberg, who turned 18 last weekend. “You can’t count on another day. I’m OK with a bad round every now and then. It would have been nice to play well, but I’m OK. If I hadn’t qualified (before the cardiac arrest) I’d have been upset … but now it doesn’t bother me at all.”

A brush with death

Teresa Weinberg was in the kitchen on the morning of March 22 when she heard a thud from somewhere above her. At first she thought Garrett was lifting weights in his room, but motherly instincts — and the realization that 16-year-olds rarely get up to lift at 8 a.m. on a Saturday — told her to check things out.

By the time she reached the top of the stairs, she could hear Grant gasping for air in the bathroom. She screamed for Garrett to wake up and ran for the key to the bathroom. With her hands shaking, Teresa couldn’t unlock the door, so she kicked it down.

There, lying face down in the bathtub, was Grant.

Teresa immediately started performing CPR, or the best version of it she could remember 20 years after she took a CPR class, while Garrett called 911. The 911 operator instructed Garrett to keep his mom calm while relaying proper CPR procedure.

“My boy is dying in front of me, that’s how I felt,” Teresa said.

When members of the Getchell Fire Department arrived a few minutes later, they found Grant not breathing and without a pulse. They took over CPR from Teresa, administered lifesaving medication, and shocked Grant’s heart with a defibrillator.

“We got there and had a young man whose heart was not beating and who was not breathing,” Getchell Fire Department Chief Travis Hots said. “It’s not a rarity, but more often than not, people don’t make it in that situation.”

It took five shocks and almost 40 minutes from the 911 call for Grant’s heart to regain a stable rhythm.

“She should be credited with saving his life, because if she didn’t initiate CPR, then we would have more than likely not had anything to work with,” Hots said of Teresa’s actions.

Grant was taken to Providence Medical Center’s Colby Campus in Everett and put into a medically induced coma. He was brought out of the coma the following day and was able to respond to touch and voices. By Monday, he was talking to visitors and doctors.

On Wednesday of that week, the ICD was implanted, and Grant was able to return home Friday, less than a week from when his heart stopped beating.

Doctors still aren’t certain what happened. Grant had had some undiagnosed health problems, but nothing doctors thought could lead to this. Dr. Kiyon Chung, one of Weinberg’s cardiologists, said they believe he has a rare form of cardiomyopathy, a disease in which the heart muscle becomes inflamed and doesn’t work properly. That is likely what caused his heart to go into arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), leading to the sudden cardiac arrest.

Dr. Chung says that Weinberg’s sudden cardiac arrest is extremely rare, happening to about one in 50,000 to 100,000 people in his age group.

Weinberg’s long-term prognosis is good. He will not be allowed to participate in high-impact sports, which means the onetime three-sport athlete will have to give up basketball and soccer and stick with golf.

Burt encouraged Weinberg by telling him that, aside from being tired more often, life has been normal for her the past 5 1/2 years. Burt even returned briefly to basketball but had to quit after her ICD fired twice during a game. Now she stays active, by running and skiing.

Weinberg jokes that he is OK with his golf-only prognosis for next year, saying it’s the only one of the three sports in which he shows any potential.

Both Weinberg and his family members say not much has changed in him since March 22, though his siblings say their brother smiles more often.

“He seems actually happier,” said Kimberly, who, along with Garrett, has gone through a number of tests since Grant’s incident but so far has checked out fine. “He seems more lively.”

Said Garrett: “He used to not laugh at my jokes, but now he’ll actually laugh sometimes.”

Don’t call him lucky

A friend of Chuck Weinberg’s commented a while back about how lucky Grant was to be alive. Chuck wasn’t buying it.

A family of strong Christian faith even before the incident, the Weinbergs are convinced that more than chance was involved in saving Grant.

The way they see it, it was no coincidence that Teresa was in the kitchen when Grant collapsed rather than upstairs like she normally would have been at that hour. Had she been in her bedroom or the bathroom, Teresa likely wouldn’t have heard her son fall. If Grant’s heart had stopped just a little bit earlier, he likely would have died in his sleep. The Getchell Fire Department, which normally has four people on duty on the weekends, happened to be having an annual pancake breakfast that day, meaning 20 firefighters were on hand.

“There’s a huge difference between God’s providence and chance,” Chuck Weinberg said.

On the day his son nearly died, Chuck started a blog, mostly to update friends and family members about Grant’s condition, but also to do what he felt was his Christian duty.

“There are a lot of people who are not going to accept Christ, but at the same time, it’s our responsibility to tell the world the good news,” said Chuck, whose blog — howgoodisgod.blogspot.com — has received comments from around the world.

Spreading the word

The Weinbergs can accept that not everyone shares their religious beliefs or agrees on the level a higher power plays in medical emergencies, but one thing they want everyone to gain from Grant’s story is the importance of learning CPR.

Dr. Chung and the paramedics on the scene agree Grant was saved in a large part because his mom started CPR right away. “A lot of people don’t have a personal relationship with Christ, but getting past that, as a parent, do you and your kids to know CPR?” Chuck Weinberg said. “We obviously place a huge importance on the spiritual part of it, but everybody thinks their kids are going to be fine, and there are lots of parents who don’t know CPR. There are lots of kids who don’t know CPR if something were to happen to their sibling or mom or dad.”

It just so happens that the first week of June is CPR Awareness Week, and the Weinbergs, with Burt’s help, hope to come up with some sort of CPR challenge between area schools.

“Most of those junior high and high school kids don’t think it could happen to their friends, they think it only can happen to older people,” Chuck said.

Moving forward

Back at that restaurant in Seattle, Burt and the Weinbergs continue trading stories. Burt, like Weinberg, had a lot of things go her way in order to survive. “It just wasn’t our time yet, buddy,” she says with a smile.

And as strange as it sounds, Burt says she’s better for almost losing her life five years ago.

“I’ll never lose that perspective,” she said. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

At 18, Grant Weinberg now has the same perspective. He doesn’t plan on wasting it.

“I know I’ll appreciate life more now,” he said. “I don’t take any days for granted.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com

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