Curtis and Heather help their son CJ blow out the candles at his first birthday party. They found out Heather was pregnant with CJ only three days before Curtis went into cardiac arrest. (Judy Italiano, Heather’s mom)
Nearly three years ago, 47-year-old Curtis Broome and his wife, Heather, set off on a 32-plus-mile bike ride along a route called The Three Bears in Northern California. While the couple had scheduled the ride in an attempt to play matchmaker for friends who had come along, about five miles into the trip Curtis began to fall behind.
He had been wearing a heart monitor for nearly nine months after a routine doctor’s visit showed he had high blood pressure, but was otherwise healthy. Heather, then 38, slowed her pace to make sure he was OK, and he said he was— until the two came to a descending portion of the route where they surpassed speeds of over 30 miles per hour for at least one mile. The rest of the group was farther ahead, and the pair got caught at a red light before they would need to hustle across the Highway 24 entrance.
“I went into a sprint, and that’s the last thing I remember,” Curtis told FoxNews.com, “and not until the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s nothing in between.”
First responders who arrived on the scene thought Curtis, who was on the ground with his body beat up and bruised, might have gotten hit by a car. Rather, he went into cardiogenic shock after his heart rate surpassed 200 beats per minute. When the Silicon Valley entrepreneur lost consciousness, he did a head-dive and fractured his eye socket, suffering contusions in the front part of his brain.
“I think he had a couple of hours to live,” Dr. Richard Chang, an interventional cardiologist at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Calif., and of the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography Interventions (SCAI), told FoxNews.com. “Most patients who have sudden cardiac arrest outside the hospital— the statistics are less than 1 percent leave the hospital functional.”
‘He was lucky’
When Curtis fell, Darlene Vendegna-Guare, a cycling coach and spinning instructor at the downtown Berkeley YMCA, was on a 12-mile bike ride with a group of about 30 people to train for a sprint distance triathlon. Their route, along the San Pablo Dam Road, overlapped with Curtis’ and Heather’s along The Three Bears.
One of Vendegna-Guare’s riders’ chains fell off her bike, so she stayed back to help her fix it. As she did, she stood stationary on a path parallel to two riders stopped at a red light— people she would later identify as Heather and Curtis— who were headed in the opposite direction.
“I heard the distinctive sound of a bike falling over,” Vendegna-Guare told FoxNews.com, “and I chuckled to myself because I figured that one of the riders had not started quickly enough when they were clipped in— and that happens sometimes, and the worst injury is a bruised ego. But I heard somebody frantically screaming: a woman yelling, ‘No, no, no!’ I jumped off my bike and ran over.”
Vendegna-Guare is required to renew her CPR certification every two years for her job at the YMCA. She’d never performed the life-saving exercise, so when she saw Curtis on the pavement, with eyes rolled back in his head, she thought, “I hope I remember how to do this, and let me just give it a try.”
“It seemed like forever,” she said, “but it was probably only a couple of minutes because the fire station was very close by.”
EMTs transported Curtis to the John Muir Medical Center, where doctors observed that he had gone into cardiogenic shock from ventricular fibrillation, an electrical event that causes the heart to beat wildly and induces cardiac arrest. The condition— usually the result of a heart attack— rendered Curtis’ heart unable to pump blood to his body’s vital organs, leaving him at risk of dying from poor blood flow or multi-organ failure.
Of the various risk factors that exist for cardiac arrest, high blood pressure was the only one Curtis had.
“When I came in, I even told his wife, Heather, ‘He’s dying; we’re gonna try to do this and see if we can pull him back,’” Chang recalled.
Chang, who hadn’t been on call that day, was at his partner’s Memorial Day barbecue when the hospital called. Chang was the only one on the hospital staff who knew how to input the mechanism that the team deemed may help save his life: the Impella 2.5, a device only 5 millimeters in diameter with an electric motor that pumps about 2.5 liters of blood per minute. Chang threaded the pump through Curtis’ groin artery to his heart’s main pumping chamber.
The Impella 2.5— which was relatively new at the time doctors implanted it in Curtis’ chest, but has since been used in thousands of patients— sucks blood from the heart’s main chamber and propels it to the main heart valve. Chang and his team used a fluoroscopy, or a real-time X-ray, to place the device in his chest.
Heather remembers Chang consulting her prior to the surgery: “They explained this is what they’re going to do,” she told FoxNews.com, “And I asked, ‘What happens if it doesn’t work?’” And then he said, ‘Well, he dies.’”
‘Like playing chess’
Next, Chang and his team sent Curtis to their center’s sister site, in Concord— John Muir Medical Center’s main cardiac institute— to receive a larger, 5 liter heart pump called the Impella 5.0.
Doctors had studied Curtis’ heart on ultrasounds with the smaller pump daily, but scans were showing that his heart wasn’t squeezing well. The CPR, the arrhythmia, and the trauma from his head injury led Chang to diagnose him with stress-induced cardiomyopathy.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved implantation of the Impella 5.0 via the femoral artery, in the groin area, but Chang and his team wanted Curtis to be able to sit up in his hospital bed, so they opted to input the device in a way that would allow him to do so.
“We did what we call a cut-down: We opened up a big artery in the shoulder area and surgically tied in a graft-conduit,” Chang said. “That allowed me to put in the 5-liter pump into the shoulder area through a graft, and pull the other one out from the groin. That ultimately I think is like playing chess— you gotta plan for the next move.”
After inputting the Impella 5.0, doctors put Curtis on a cooling protocol and froze his body for 24 hours, a method that can compromise circulation but also help prevent brain injury from trauma.
Throughout his time in the hospital, Heather, who had learned three days prior to the accident that she was expecting their first child, never left Curtis’ side. She forewent three nights of sleep. Her mother flew in from Wisconsin, and a guard let them sleep in an empty hospital room.
“I had to compartmentalize that this baby is inherent and baking, but I thought given what had happened and the trauma I was going through mentally, there’s a strong chance he wouldn’t survive … I have to give everything I can to him (Curtis) for the time being, and hopefully we’ll have something to show for this,” Heather said.
As a precaution, doctors transferred Curtis to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center after spending a week at the John Muir Medical Center. He was also struggling with kidney and lung complications, and if he ended up needing a heart transplant, he could recieve one at that hospital but not at the John Muir Medical Center.
“If he recovers on his own, we can remove it (the Impella 5.0),” Chang said, recalling his thought process. “It would have allowed him to leave the hospital and be functional. If that wasn’t the case, he could have gotten a heart transplant, which isn’t a good, ideal long-term solution.”
Within a few days, doctors were able to remove the heart pump, as his heart resumed beating on its own.
‘I could see the Golden’
When Curtis opened his eyes and came to, it was a sunny, clear-blue-skied day, stunningly similar to the one when he fell. He looked out the window to see a sight he’d known all his life: the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean.
“I didn’t know where I was,” he said, “but I could see the Golden.”
Curtis hadn’t remembered that he and Heather were expecting, but when Heather reminded him, the news gave him the strength to persevere through recovery.
“It was something we had put off, but it’s something I really wanted to experience. Seeing my wife, her helping to calm me down, although being in an unfamiliar environment … she’s my rock, if you will. And for her to tell me we were going to be parents was tremendously powerful,” Curtis said.
Today, Curtis, now 50, leads a life he describes as his “new normal.” He wears sunglasses indoors to reduce sensitivity to light, but the daily cocktail of drugs he takes has been reduced from 14 to only six pills plus a vitamin D supplement: Prozac, two blood pressure pills, a water pill, a statin and a baby aspirin. He also has an implantable cardioverter defibrillator that doctors input after removing the Impella 5.0. The device monitors every one of Curtis’ heart beats, and in the event of arrhythmia the defibrillator will shock his heart out of it and restore a healthy heartbeat.
Pre-injury, Curtis would sleep six hours a night, but during recovery, his daily sleep schedule increased to about 12 hours a night and two hours during the day. In total, he spent 30 days in the hospital and underwent multiple surgeries.
“You think the same just for everything, but it always seems to be a diminished result where you have to make compromises,” Curtis said. “I’m not just talking physical activity but also mental activity— even in doing something technical, I still only have the mental strength to do it 80 to 90 percent before I start getting mentally tired, which didn’t happen before.”
About six months after undergoing cardiac arrest, Curtis attempted to return to his job at Seofficient.com, an e-commerce company for which he served as president. But when he started to forget about emails with specific directions that he’d sent his team, he realized his injury had taken a bigger toll on his short-term memory than he thought.
“He finally accepted there was something going on,” Heather said. “He had been through so much.”
‘What else is going to go wrong?’
Shortly before their child’s birth, Curtis noticed a bump on his chest where the Impella 5.0 had been implanted then removed. He thought the mark was a sign of the wound healing, but when it became progressively itchy, and in the months following protruded to about the size of an egg and a half, he and Heather knew something wasn’t right.
In December 2013, doctors at UCSF conducted blood tests and an ultrasound, and then drew tissue from his chest to discover it had become infected. In removing the heart pump, doctors inserted synthetic material that Curtis’ body ended up rejecting.
Four days before his son’s birth, Curtis had surgery to remove the infected tissue and replace the synthetic material with organic tissue from the lung of a lamb. Curtis ended up losing 80 percent of his body’s blood during the procedure because the necrotic, or dead, tissue was deeper and more widespread than doctors originally thought. Instead of taking an hour as doctors predicted, the procedure took four.
“It was extremely frustrating, and yes, I was downtrodden about it,” Curtis said. “I remember asking myself, ‘What else is going to go wrong?’”
‘The miracle in this’
Heather and Curtis welcomed their baby boy, C.J. Broome, on Jan. 19, 2013. Since leaving his job, Curtis has become a stay-at-home dad to care for C.J. full time in the couple’s Montclair, Calif., home, while Heather is self-employed in executive search for technology companies.
The Broomes have started a technology network organization for alumni of the University of California, Berkeley called Berkeley Technology, which they’d planned to launch around the time Curtis collapsed. Life today for Curtis is less about career and more about spending time with C.J.— reading him “Curious George” and “Thomas the Tank Engine,” and spending as much time as possible outdoors.
He and Heather still bike together on flatland but not as frequently as they did before— less so because of the potential health risks involved and more so because they’re busy with C.J. They began teaching him to ride tricycle when he was about 16 months old.
“Heather grew up a gymnast … so he certainly has her sense of balance,” Curtis said. “The first time he completely shocked us with his tricycle was when he literally stood up on the seat and raised his hands. He wasn’t even 2 years old when this happened, and he absolutely blew our minds.”
While the prospect of being a father helped Curtis endure the days following his surgeries, of all the circumstances and people that contributed to his recovery, he said he owes the most credit to Heather.
“I never would have dreamed I would’ve put her through the hell I unintentionally put her through,” Curtis said, “and the simple fact that she carried our child and didn’t lose our child despite an unimaginable amount of stress and anxiety … I have such a deep, deep level of respect and admiration for her.”
“(My doctors) tell me it’s amazing how I’ve survived with amazing neurological damage, but for me it’s beyond amazing what Heather has accomplished, and I don’t want that to get lost in all of this. She kept our family together: It wasn’t me, it wasn’t C.J., it was Heather. If there’s a miracle in this, it’s that.”