Austin McGrath has always been a fighter.
It helped him garner medals as a competitive swimmer and martial artist. It helped him take down a purse-snatcher two years ago while working as a courtesy clerk in Red Deer at Sobeys north, and now it has given him a second chance at life.
On Friday the 13th in May, McGrath, only 20, suffered a cardiac arrest while swimming lengths at the Red Deer Recreation Centre Pool.
“I think I was in shock,” said Austin’s mother Debi McGrath. “I had no idea what happened, what was wrong. I thought he was dead because they couldn’t get a pulse. I thought he had died, which he did; but he came back.”
It was like any other day for McGrath. He convinced his mother to go swimming, and then ran to the pool from their home in Highland Green while his mother drove.
The two swam lengths for a half hour, both noticing that they were struggling a little more than usual with the routine workout. Soon, Debi saw Austin propped up on the side of the pool, resting his head on his arms. Thinking he was tired, she swam two more lengths and then checked on her son. That’s when she knew something was wrong.
“I saw that he hadn’t moved and that he was in the exact same position and his face was completely grey,” said Debi. “There was no colour.”
After that, everything became a blur for her. Two men pulled Austin out of the water and another swimmer, Carla Atkinson, immediately started CPR. A second unidentified woman did mouth-to mouth resuscitation. The lifeguard called 911. Austin had no pulse and was not breathing.
“I saw his colour and started CPR right away,” said Atkinson.
In four minutes, six Red Deer Emergency Services fire-medics were on the scene and immediately defibrillated Austin. It took them three tries to start his heart. They then put him into a drug-induced coma, inserted a breathing tube and began a cooling protocol to limit the amount of internal damage.
“Once we had his heart rate back, it was quite low,” said fire-medic Allan Kuprowski.
Doctors worked frantically to stabilize Austin. By 2 a.m. they decided his best chance was to be flown to Calgary Foothills Hospital. They estimated his heart was stopped 15 minutes before it was restarted.
For every one minute delay in defibrillation, the survival rate of a cardiac arrest victim decreases by seven to 10 per cent, which put Austin’s survival rate at minus five. Brain injury is also likely if cardiac arrest goes untreated for five minutes.
At Foothills, doctors kept his body in the cooling protocol and by midnight of the next day began the process of warming his body. Again it was a miracle he was still alive, but now there was the question about how much brain damage had occurred.
The next two and a half weeks were a roller-coaster ride.
“The whole time he was on life support, it was touch and go,” said Debi. “His whole system went into failure. His kidneys went into failure, he had pneumonia.”
By early Monday morning Austin’s temperature began to rise and his kidneys began to shut down.
On Tuesday, he was breathing on his own for a couple of hours. He also began to recognize his parents and at one point swore at them.
“We knew at that point that something was there, something left in the brain,” said his father, Darryl. “It was actually kind of nice to hear . . . That gave us a bit of hope, even if he swore.”
But his blood pressure started to skyrocket and they had to intubate him again. He developed a fever, and pneumonia, and his spleen became enlarged.
“They were giving him drugs to make him pee, drugs to do everything, drugs to get his heart rate down,” said Darryl. “At one time, he was hooked up to 19 bags and 14 different drugs through his neck, through his arms.”
For the first two weeks Debi barely left his side, reading to him from Keith Richards’ autobiography Life, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and posts from Austin’s friends on Facebook.
“There was that one day, I asked the doctor should I be preparing myself for him to die, because they just couldn’t figure out why he was getting the high fevers,” explained Debi. “Every test they ran on him came back negative and they could not find anything.”
On May 23, they celebrated Austin’s 21st birthday while he was unconscious and in critical condition.
The first major turning point occurred when Foothills brought in Dr. Luc Berthiaume, a specialist in respirology and internal medicine to consult on the case. He suggested that they stop all medication, thinking that the combination of drugs he was on was causing the high fevers.
“And then Austin slowly started to progress,” said his mother.
Doctors suggested he would need up to a year of rehabilitation.
“We were told we were in for a marathon,” explained Debi. “ . . . And that was how stuff would happen with him, up and down, up and down, something good would happen, sometimes it would be instant and there was no reason why it would be so fast. They couldn’t figure him out.”
The first sign of his mental faculties recovering came as result of encouragement from his father.
“I talked to Austin,’ Darryl said.
“I said, ‘You fight, you have to fight from the inside, you squeeze my hand, I want you to fight real hard I want you to squeeze my hand,’ and he was laying there and his eyes were open but he wasn’t focusing on me. But he started squeezing my hand. I could see him vibrating and he started squeezing my hand, and squeezing it tighter and tighter and then he started raising his arm, and I just started bawling.”
On June, 4, he started becoming more alert and lucid, but he still wasn’t communicating.
By the next day, nurses had him sitting in a chair.
Soon Debi and Darryl bought a white board with a marker, and Austin was able to hold the pen. It was like learning to write all over again for the Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School graduate.
That’s the point that Austin became aware again.
“I remember four people around me, Mom and Dad being there and trying to get me to write stuff down, I remember I couldn’t write but I would try to circle in motions.”
Darryl, travelling back and forth to Red Deer to work, was astonished in the changes in his son over four days.
“I had gone back to work. I would leave on Sunday go back to Red Deer . . . and when I saw him again on Thursday, his improvement was just leaps and bounds,” said Darryl. “I was just stunned.”
Medical staff and family began to evaluate damage to his brain.
“He had just got the guitar before this happened,” said Darryl. “That Thursday I bring the guitar up, and he is in bed and he is looking really good now. He is aware, he can’t talk that well because his throat is really raw, and he still has monitors on his chest and a feeding tube up his nose. He had the guitar and he whispers, “I forget how to play,” and we all start laughing. It’s like you never did know how to play, we said, you play the piano!”
“They (the medical staff at Foothills) refer to him as a miracle mystery,” said Debi. “It really is a miracle he made it.”
When he began to speak, Austin would jumble his words, but the speech therapist told him he had to focus on separating his words and talk slower. Within a week and a half, he was speaking normally.
His parents kept stimulating his mind by playing cards, crib, chess and backgammon with him.
“When I first started to walk, I could barely walk, like I was really drunk, shuffling side to side.”
Finally the moment came when Austin would try to play the piano.
“It was like teaching myself to play again for the first little bit. It was really good! I really enjoyed it! I knew I could do it, I just had to do it over and over again just to get used to it.”
It was a defining moment for his parents.
“It was a huge moment . . . to play this piano, and there were a lot of tears shed,” said Darryl. “There was five of us, five of the family members, we were just bawling, we were so happy, it was just a happy, happy moment.”
“Its almost like Austin woke up one day and was back,” said Debi. “Just a tad bit thinner and a little bit of a memory problem.”
After weeks of testing, doctors were able to figure out why, at age 20, Austin had suffered a cardiac arrest. He had Prolonged QT Syndrome, a genetic disorder, where sudden death can occur because of an abnormal heartbeat.
On June 15, to prevent another cardiac arrest, Austin had a defibrillator implanted in his chest. The defibrillator monitors his heartbeat and paces it.
“It is like having a backup safety for your life,” said Austin.
Once he started eating solid food, Austin’s recovery rate sped up. He started going to occupational therapy, working his brain and doing mazes and puzzles.
“It just came back so fast,” said Debi. “They couldn’t explain it. They have never seen anyone turn around that fast before. The doctors were completely in shock and awe, how fast he turned it around . . . I always knew he was an amazing person, but to come this far, this fast, has totally blown me away. Last week he could barely talk or write, but look at him now.”
His brain was also bouncing back quickly and his short-term memory was improving.
Eventually, he was transferred back to the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, then released as an outpatient. In six weeks, he hand undergone a miraculous recovery.
“Determination and support are the reasons I am here,” said Austin. “Having Mom here every day, her reading to me and hearing her voice, and all the family I had down here, seeing all the friends that I had, who came down to visit, and on Facebook.
“A lot of it was determination to get out of here, but I had so much support from family and friends. It played a huge part having so many people hope the best for me and pray for me. . . .
“I wouldn’t be here without them.”
It helped that Austin has always been a good athlete, and increasingly fit as he got older.
“My lifestyle kind of changed,” said Austin. “As I got older I got into a much healthier lifestyle, I was working out a lot more, pushing myself, swimming and doing yoga, eating better. If I had gone through this before, I don’t know if I would have survived. Maybe subconsciously I knew there was something coming.”
Eventually, Austin was able to thank Carla Atkinson for performing CPR and the fire-medics who attended the scene.
“It just doesn’t seem enough,” said Austin.
“When he went down he was very blue, grey and ashen, when I got to see him last night, I was absolutely blown away that he looked as good as he did, that he was walking, because I didn’t know what to expect,” said an emotional Atkinson.
Austin continues to have small struggles, including with short-term memory. He will never be able to push his body like he used to, and he isn’t as good at Warcraft as he was before he had the cardiac arrest.
The incident, however, has also resulted in some positive changes.
“I want to do something, I want to be important, I want to do something to help other people,” said Austin. “Before I wanted to go to school but I wasn’t actually driven to do anything. But now I have the drive to do something. It is a second chance and you do not want to waste a second chance, because you never know what is going to happen.”
Eight weeks after his heart failed, his fighting spirit continues to push him forward. Austin is enrolled in summer school, taking Chemistry 30, in hopes of becoming an engineer.
Doug Rowe is a local freelance writer.