A football player since he was a preschooler, Cash Hennessy was playing a Pop Warner game in a park when the offensive lineman collapsed on the field in front of his parents, teammates, and spectators.
Three onlookers trained in CPR rushed to the 13-year-old and, when they couldn’t detect a pulse, began chest compressions.
An AED (Automatic Electronic Defibrillator) was secured from park facilities, but it didn’t have any batteries.
Luckily, paramedics from a nearby fire station arrived within minutes and used their AED to shock Cash out of ventricular fibrillation.
However, Cash was in cardiac arrest when he arrived at a local hospital. Fortunately, after repeated shocks and IV medication in the local ER, he had return of spontaneous circulation (ROSC). He was transported to CHOC and put in the care of a recently formed collaboration of pediatric heart specialists from CHOC and UCLA Health.
The specialists, who included interventional pediatric cardiologist Dr. Gira Morchi, division chief of cardiology and co-medical director of the CHOC Heart Institute, diagnosed Cash with anomalous left coronary artery (ALCA).
This rare condition (1% of the population is born with it) develops in the womb. One of Cash’s coronary arteries was in the wrong place, disrupting the normal flow of blood through his heart.
Sudden cardiac arrest during exertion may be the first sign of ALCA, and that’s what happened to Cash – just weeks after he got the green light to play football following a routine physical.
Cash’s parents, Brenda and Chad, are still shaken from the Sept. 17, 2022, medical emergency but are very thankful for the team that saved their son’s life.
Through a unique collaboration, CHOC and UCLA Health surgeons, pediatric cardiologists, and intensivists provide care and support at each other’s hospitals, and have collaborated on medical training programs.
Cash’s story is an example of how CHOC and UCLA Health are building on each other’s strengths to create a joint pediatric heart program that will become a leading destination for diagnosing and treating the full spectrum of congenital and acquired heart disease in children.
“This has been a nightmare,” says Brenda, “but we placed our trust in the doctors and staff and everyone was great. The way the team came together and included us in all their decisions and let us listen and ask questions was remarkable.”
When Cash arrived at CHOC, his care team stabilized him but that night he “coded” again – he stopped breathing and had no pulse.
The decision was made to put Cash on ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation), life-saving technology for the sickest of patients that takes over the heart’s pumping functions and the lung’s oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange.
Dr. Brian Palafox, one of CHOC’s cardiothoracic surgeons, and the CHOC ECMO team placed Cash on ECMO through the groin artery and vein.
Over the next five days, Cash’s heart function improved and he was waking up and responding to his parents and the CHOC Cardiovascular Intensive Care team.
On day five of ECMO, Dr. Ming-Sing Si, a UCLA Health cardiothoracic surgeon, and Dr. Richard Gates, a CHOC cardiothoracic surgeon, took Cash to a CHOC operating room and corrected his anomalous coronary artery after transition from ECMO to cardiopulmonary bypass.
The surgery went well and Cash was able to be separated from cardiopulmonary bypass and have the tubes that were used for ECMO removed.
Cash spent 33 days at CHOC before he was stable enough to go home.
However, because his heart function is at about 60% of normal functioning, he remains on blood thinners.
On July 19, 2023, Cash saw his CHOC cardiologist, Dr. Wyman Lai, who put a patch on his chest to monitor his irregular heartbeat.
Dr. Lai told the family he will manage Cash’s condition with medications.
Peace of mind
Cash, 14, cannot play contact sports because he’s on blood thinners and because of his weakened heart, says his father.
Chad recently bought Cash, an incoming freshman at San Dimas High School, a golf putter in the hopes he may take up the sport.
“Mentally,” says his mother, “he’s doing his best. He just wants to fit in with his friends and doesn’t want to be treated differently.”
When word about Cash’s heart condition spread, celebrities from the sports world sent him personal video messages.
Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors told him: “You have so much greatness ahead of you. Just keep your faith, keep your head high, keep saying your prayers and just lean on your family during this time.”
Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Jose Mota told Cash to never lose hope.
“Here in the Dodger family,” Mota said, “we love you and wish you the absolute best. You are in God’s hands my friend.”
Meanwhile, Brenda and Chad, who have three older children, want to advocate for hands-on training of CPR for school athletic coaches – not just online training.
“We bought our own AED because it’s not covered by insurance,” Brenda says. “It makes us feel better to travel with one.”
CHOC Hospital was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2022-23 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the cardiology specialty.