Heart attack: A blocked artery prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching a section of the heart. If the blocked artery is not reopened quickly, the part of the heart normally nourished by that artery begins to die. The longer a person goes without treatment, the greater the damage.
Cardiac arrest: An electrical malfunction in the heart causing an irregular heartbeat. With its pumping action disrupted, the heart cannot pump blood to the brain, lungs and other organs. Seconds later, a person loses consciousness and has no pulse. Death occurs within minutes if the victim does not receive treatment.
Larry Morton was on second base when the sharp, metallic sound of a bat hitting a ball rang out. The 59-year-old man took off for third.
But before he could get reach the base, the 5-foot-10 Morton stopped and collapsed.
Morton had just suffered a cardiac arrest in the middle of a game with his Rabun County senior softball team.
Morton doesn’t remember any of that day in August 2015. He can’t recall the day before or much of the days following, either. But his teammates can.
Morton, who plays shortstop for his team in a league of regular Wednesday morning doubleheaders, was acting and playing normally through the first game and the break between.
“What happened apparently is I was on second base,” he said, recounting the tale his teammates have shared with him. “So I had gotten a hit and was already on second and ran to third. Apparently, just before I got to third base, I stopped and went straight back like a pole.”
Fewer than 8 percent of people survive cardiac arrest outside a hospital. Luckily for Morton, his teammates and emergency responders reacted quickly to his medical emergency.
Morton’s team manager and a retired Atlanta firefighter Frank Pellegrino shouted for someone to call 911. He then raced to Morton’s side to find out what was wrong
“He was right there on top of me,” Morton said. “Initially some people, and I think he included, thought it was a stroke. But when I started turning the wrong color for a stroke, he started CPR.”
Meanwhile, one person dialed 911. Another called to the park’s main building for the onsite defibrillator.
“They apparently shocked me twice with the AED,” Morton said. “By the time Rabun County EMS arrived, I had a heartbeat and I was, I guess, breathing on my own.”
Morton credits those quick responses for his survival and recovery.
Health and history
A part-time professor of political science at the University of North Georgia Dahlonega, Morton said he prides himself on “being extremely physically active.”
“This happened on a Wednesday and the weekend prior, we were in North Carolina,” he said. “My wife and I and the dogs were hiking up the Chimney Rock area. The Friday before that I was playing ice hockey down in Cumming as a goalie. I swim most Sundays here at the (UNG) pool, 1,000 yards. I lift weights off and on, and of course play softball.”
Morton added he’s been active his whole life, but heart troubles were nearly inevitable for him.
His grandmother died at 69 after a major cardiac arrest. His mother had a minor heart attack at 59. And his little brother had a major heart attack at 40, requiring an AED as well.
Morton was 59 and seven months, almost to the day, when his heart stopped on the softball field.
“Family history-wise, that’s I guess where the crux is,” he said.
Morton remembers nothing of the incident or his transport with Rabun County Emergency Medical Services, and little of his treatment at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
“Zero,” he said, holding his hand up in the shape of an ‘O.’ “I remember nothing of the day before in fact. Though I know I had a friend helping me and we were building a drainage pipe under my back deck. So I was hauling a bunch of wheelbarrows of gravel. I don’t remember doing it, but I can look over my deck and see that I did it.”
Dr. Andrew Yen with the Northeast Georgia Heart Center said Morton’s high activity level leading up to his arrest is “amazing.”
“I think his peak physical conditioning allowed him to survive his events, and interestingly allowed him to function at a high level,” Yen said. “I mean, the man was playing recreational softball, swimming and doing all his activities in spite of significant blockages in the arteries of his heart, which in anyone else would have limited them significantly.”
The first two days at the hospital, Morton was in a coma. On the first day, his doctors intubated him and put him in a “cooling protocol,” dropping his body temperature to closer to 94 degrees to protect his vital organs. On day two, he was in a drug-induced coma as his body temperature was brought back up.
“And then very little of the next two weeks do I remember,” Morton said.
Yen said an ultrasound on Morton revealed “an area of his heart wasn’t moving well.” Yen then performed a cardiac catheterization, revealing Morton had two of his major coronary arteries fully occluded, including the one called “the widowmaker.”
That same week, it was determined Morton had a very small brain bleed from falling straight back and hitting his head.
“Because apparently I didn’t crumble,” he said. “I just fell straight back.”
Morton was discharged Sept. 8, nine days after he was first admitted, to return home and allow his brain to heal. He underwent quadruple bypass to repair his heart Sept. 23.
Morton said while the folks at the medical center did “an awesome job” with his treatment, he credits his wife, Mindy, as the “instrumental factor in my overall recovery.”
He also credits Pellegrino for his quick work and the Rabun County Parks and Recreation Department, for having an AED on site. Roy Quilliams, director of the Rabun County Recreation Department, said his office has had two AEDs at its facility since 2007 for medical emergencies.
“As far as I can tell, my heart and my brain are intact,” he said. “And I think the only reason for that is the quick intervention, with the CPR getting the blood flowing and the oxygen flowing. So I wasn’t ‘dead’ for a long time.”
A story to share, life to live
Today, Morton is back to near-full activity level. His softball team is hoping to get its own AED to have on the field. Morton is the youngest player on his team, he said, and most of his teammates “never expected something like this” to happen to him.
Morton, Pellegrino, doctors and first responders spoke on a panel at the Northeast Georgia Regional STEMI Summit last week, sharing the story.
At the summit, Pellegrino said the response from everyone on the field was “probably the most important thing that happened that day.
“We probably had 50 guys out there,” Pellegrino said. “And most of them were praying. The big guy really helped us, thank God. If it wasn’t for him, we’d have nothing.”
Morton said he hopes his story will reiterate the value of immediate intervention. If more people are trained in CPR or know how to respond, more lives can be saved, he said.
“The survival rate of people like me is very, very low, in the 8 percent range,” he said. “And that’s not bragging on me, that’s bragging on all those ducks that lined up just right.”