Connor with his Family

Connor's story: Sudden heart attack

A Teenager's Experience of Heart Attack

Like many teenagers his age, fifteen-year-old Connor loved playing rugby and dreamed to make it his career. Sadly, these plans fell short on what appeared to be like any other day.

On what was seemingly a regular day of the week, Connor was training for a rugby match with his team as he always did.

“My team had just finished training. Mum tells me I was going for a break, to have a bit of water,” says Connor. “And she noticed I was walking a little bit funny. Then, all of a sudden, I collapsed.”

Connor on field with coach

Horrified, Connor’s mum, Wendy, rushed to see her son lying on the ground in front of her. She quickly realised that his heartbeat had stopped, her son was dying before her eyes.

Connor’s rugby coach rushed to begin CPR as Wendy hoped, begged and prayed. The ambulance arrived five minutes later, defibrillating Connor to restart his heart. These five minutes were agonising for Wendy, and all who witnessed the ordeal.

Connor was rushed to a nearby hospital and then flown to Brisbane by an air ambulance back to his home in Toowoomba.

Sadly, the news at the time wasn’t good. It wasn’t entirely clear what caused Connor’s heart to stop; he was in a coma and had been given just an 8% chance of survival.

Connor in the hospital

His initial diagnosis was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), sometimes known as athlete’s heart. HCM causes excessive thickening of the heart muscle wall, which can block blood flow and make it increasingly difficult for the heart to pump. It can even cause electrical disturbances that result in sudden death.

As the future of Connor’s heart health remains uncertain, scientists at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute are studying whether it may be possible to prevent the development of HCM by intervening in the heart’s growth during adolescence.

What can cause a sudden heart attack?

Connor on treadmill

Connor’s genetic testing results came back a year later, suggesting he may have a condition called catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT). CPVT is a rare heart rhythm disorder which can cause periods of abnormally fast heart rhythm called arrhythmia.

In an effort to help avoid catastrophic cardiac attacks in young people and athletes like Connor, Professor Jamie Vandenberg’s Cardiac Electrophysiology Laboratory is studying. One focus is on the development of a type of electrocardiogram to assess the risk of sudden death.

Professor Vandenberg explains that, “Being able to accurately predict that a person is predisposed to a heart rhythm disorder is critical to preventing sudden death in young people.”

His attack was many years ago now, but his life has changed dramatically. As a consequence, Connor’s no longer able to take part in any strenuous physical exercise. This sadly meant, giving up his beloved rugby star career.

Now, he says, "You never think it's going to be you. But, one day, you might wake up in a hospital like I did. Or you or someone you love might not wake up at all."

But Connor found solace in the saxophone.

In fact, he recently played on the ABC’s The Recording Studio, and it’s this special performance, dedicated to the coach who saved his life.

Connor plays with passion. And although his music sounds effortless and calm, he has the same fears as anyone who has experienced a heart attack. Some days, he feels anxious about having another one, and what the future may bring.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years