Working to Prevent Sudden Cardiac Death

By Lauren Wanko

Robert Melita was a 21-year-old college student, healthy and active with dreams of one day owning his own business. On an early morning in December 2012, he didn’t wake up to go to work.

“I think the hardest thing was the surprise obviously. No one is anticipating that their child is not going to wake up,” said his mother Beth.

Robert passed away from sudden cardiac death.

“What it is is an electrical stoppage of the heart and the heart runs on electricity. That’s what drives each one of our heartbeats and for whatever reason there’s a sudden jump in one of the heart beats or an interruption and the heart stops beating,” explained Dr. Dawn Calderon.

Meridian Health’s Dr. Calderon says sudden cardiac death typically happens in young people when there’s a thickened heart muscle that is electrically irritable.

How do you get a thickened heart muscle?

“It’s something that you’re born with. There’s some genetic components to this. It tends to run in families,” Dr. Calderon said.

Robert had no family history or symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath and passing out during exercise.

“There were no warning signs, there was nothing,” said Robert’s dad Charlie. “He was actually scheduled to have rotor cuff surgery so he had all the pre-ops testing and absolutely no signs at all.”

“I say it’s like trying to figure out when a light bulb is going to go out. You just don’t sometimes there’s little flicker warnings of it but often times it just goes out,” Dr. Calderon said.

About two years ago, a team of Meridian Health medical professionals who work with both kids and adults got together to address and prevent sudden cardiac death. Dr. Caldron says their research concluded there’s no reliable way to determine who’s at risk.

Why is that?

“Much of these things stay silent until they cause a devastating problem, like sudden cardiac death. That’s the scary thing, we just have no warning signs,” she said.

Which is why Meridian Health and the Melitas joined to educate the community on CPR and defibrillator training — the most effective tools to prevent sudden cardiac death. They’ve reached 5,000 students so far. And the Melitas launched a college scholarship in Robert’s name.

“It’s a silent killer and we need parents to be aware of the signs of sudden cardiac death,” Charlie said.

“It’s a wonderful thing to know that we’ve helped the awareness because for us it was too late,” Beth said.