A woman suffered cardiac arrest after a trip

When 23-year-old Madison Thornton left to study abroad in Italy this month, she didn’t know an air ambulance would bring her to the U.S. within days — a shocking discovery about her heart after a medical evacuation.

“My doctors tell me I’m lucky to be alive,” Thornton, who lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, told TODAY. “It’s really crazy.”

“He was very lucky to survive that. Now we know what’s going on and we can make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Dr. Arthur Martin, Thornton’s cardiologist at Forrest Health in Hattiesburg.

The trip started off great before turning into a nightmare.

Thornton, a Tulane University medical student, was taking a food safety policy class in Bolsena, a city on the shores of a large volcanic lake in central Italy.

He arrived on July 3rd and started the course the next day, July 4th. During a break from classes, he and other Tulane students enjoyed lunch, Thornton ate two servings of macaroni and ice cream, and then headed to the lake.

That’s when Thornton fell.

“We’d only been walking for a minute and I felt so weird. I started seeing spots. I felt so helpless,” Thornton recalls.

“I woke up on the floor…I knew something was wrong with me because I’ve never fainted, I’ve never been sick with my health.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but he believes Martin survived the sudden cardiac arrest due to an irregular heart rhythm. Her heart stopped but restarted on its own – possibly because of the hard fall, she said.

Thornton took this selfie to document the aftermath of the fall. He was left with cuts on his face after a sudden fall.Courtesy of Madison Thornton

An ambulance rushed Thornton to the nearby town of Viterbo, which turned out to be another nightmare because he was never hospitalized, his entire family was across the ocean, he didn’t speak Italian, and no interpreters were provided. Thornton felt dizzy and nauseous the first night she was in hospital, but has since been “absolutely normal”.

His mother came two days later. Eventually, medical staff were able to tell him that he had a heart problem: elevated troponin levels, which indicated heart damage, and a low ejection fraction, tests showed his heart wasn’t beating well. The story is not just one of debilitation.

The medical air ambulance was “excellent”.

Given the news, Thornton’s study abroad experience was a success, but he had to be medically evacuated to return to the United States. It turns out that he was booked through Tulane University for this option and a flight was arranged for July 12th.

The medical ambulance was a small plane with room for Thornton, who was on a stretcher, his mother, a flight doctor, a flight nurse, a respiratory therapist and two pilots. Thornton was constantly connected to an EKG so that medical staff could monitor his heart rhythm.

Thornton left Italy in an ambulance on July 12.
Thornton left Italy in an ambulance on July 12.Courtesy of Madison Thornton

The student, who had only flown in economy class, called having a plane for herself “a great experience.”

Air Ambulance from Italy flew to Iceland and then to Canada to minimize the time spent over the ocean if Thornton’s condition required an emergency landing. The flight ended in Gulfport, Mississippi, where Thornton went by ambulance to Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg.

“I was in that ambulance thinking, ‘God forbid anything happens here,’ but they were all amazing,” Thornton said of the flight and medical crew.Courtesy of Madison Thornton

Family history was known

Now that he’s home, doctors are trying to figure out what’s going on with his heart.

The Italian medical team suspected acute myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle usually caused by a virus.

But a simple blood test, a sign of inflammation, was completely normal, so there was no evidence of acute myocarditis, said Dr. Martin, Thornton Cardiologist.

A look at readings from an Italian hospital showed her heart went into a life-threatening rhythm the night she was admitted, but not again. He also confirmed that his heart was not beating as fast as it should.

Then, Martin got a big clue: Thornton’s family history. Two of his cousins ​​died suddenly at his age, and several other family members died suddenly around age 40. This indicated a hereditary heart defect.

Thornton shares a happy moment with his parents at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Thornton shares a happy moment with his parents at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.Courtesy of Madison Thornton

The diagnosis is now familial cardiomyopathy, weakness of the heart muscle, abnormal rhythm, ventricular tachycardia, which can lead to sudden cardiac death. Thornton has had the condition throughout his life, but it only became apparent when he was 23 on a trip to Italy, he said. Many genetic diseases develop later in life, he added.

Little did the student know that there was something in his heart.

“I’m very fortunate that it happened when I was with a group of people, and I’m very fortunate that it didn’t happen when I was alone,” Thornton said. “If I had somehow fallen, I could have hit my head badly, or if I had been driving, it could have been worse.”

While the stress of travel can be a trigger, Martin noted, sudden cardiac arrest can happen without any stress.

Doctors plan to implant a permanent defibrillator that will restore Thornton’s heart to a normal rhythm. Until then, he always wears a vest with an external defibrillator that does the same thing. He is also taking medication to strengthen his heart.

Thornton can’t drive or exercise yet, but is happy to be out of the hospital. He continues his studies as a medical student and is able to lead a normal life with an implanted defibrillator protecting his heart.

“It was so normal, but everybody has to tell you something,” Thornton said.

As for Italy, he has no plans to return: “I’m at home now. I will not go anywhere.”

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