January 25 was just a regular Monday morning for 17-year-old James Norrington. The Newton High School junior had no way of knowing that before the day ended he would die, twice.
While in second block James told a friend that he felt funny and that his chest felt full. When he entered his third block class he told his teacher the same thing. She sent him to the nurse, but James only made it as far as the doorway to the front office before collapsing.
"I was at work and I got a call telling me that he had collapsed in the office, and they couldn’t get a response from him," said his mother Nancy. "My brother-in-law lives closer and he literally ran out of the house with his clothes in his hands trying to get to James. But when I walked in, he was gone. My legs turned to Jell-O," she said. "They had to catch me. They tried to pull me in another room, but I wouldn’t go, I had to be there with my baby, no matter what."
NHS Nurse Linda Pitts, who has been with the school since 1992, instructed several school personnel and they were able to start and continue CPR until EMS arrived and took over.
"This was the first time I had to perform CPR at school," said Pitts. "I was a little nervous but was able to do the things I needed to do. Everyone was there to try and help and the EMS responded very quickly. I was really glad to see them," she said. "It was very rewarding to me when I found out James would make a full recovery and be able to return to school."
According to Nancy her son stopped breathing for 20 minutes and they had to shock him seven times with deliberator paddles before they could get him back, leaving burns on his chest. EMS workers got him loaded in the ambulance and then lost him once more for about two minutes. Eventually they got him to Newton Medical Center and from there he was lifeflighted to Egleston Children’s Hospital
"That was the worst day of my life," said Nancy. "My baby was healthy as a horse, very athletic…"
James was kept sedated for three days because every time they allowed him to wake up he attempted to pull the tubes out and fighting, confused and unsure about what was going on around him.
Doctors quickly diagnosed James with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome – a condition where there is an extra conduction pathway in the heart which can sometimes cause the electrical signal that tells the heart to beat to go too fast, resulting in tachycardia (rapid heart rhythm), dizziness, chest palpitations, fainting or, on rare occasions, cardiac arrest. Many times when athletes collapse on the field is it due to this condition, one that James likely had since birth but that Nancy was unaware of because the symptoms were never present and James had never had a reason to have an EKG – which would have identified the problem.
"He wasn’t having chest pains or irregular breathing or anything like that," said Nancy. "There was no way for us to know about it." Even during athletics (for James, that means football, baseball, basketball and track), there were no symptoms. Not until he felt the fullness in his chest Jan. 25.
James’ father Johnny got a call while at work in Tucker. He was told that James was sick and he needed to get there.
"It was hard to believe because he’s so healthy," he said, watching his son toss a football on the bleachers of Sharp Stadium, less then a month after he died in the hall of NHS. "When I went in to see him he had all these tubes in him… But he’s a miracle, he’s getting better about it a lot faster then we are," he said with a chuckle. "I still haven’t gotten over it yet. It was terrifying."
The Friday after he collapsed doctors did a laparoscopic procedure where the extra pathway was cauterized. According to Nancy, the only problem that James still has is recovering his short-term memory. For instance, he has no memory of the incident at all; he couldn’t remember that he knew how to drive or that he had a driver’s license. But slowly his memory is coming back. He has yet to return to school but does attend rehabilitation Monday through Friday. He has already been given a release for all athletics, according to Nancy, doctors are amazed.
"If he were not so young, strong-minded, healthy… It could have been really bad," said Nancy. "They also said that if CPR had not been started when it was, if EMS hadn’t responded as quickly, if he had stopped at the restroom or if his teacher hadn’t sent him to the office, he wouldn’t have made it."
EMS Captain Charles Scott Queen said that Newton Medical Center had recently purchased two Lucas Devices, a chest compression system that allows for a continued stream of CPR. This allowed CPR to continue while paddles were used on James to bring him back to life.
"That was the true key to his survival," said Scott. "It started with his treatment at the high school – with them recognizing there was a problem – and then the whole chain just worked together. From the school to EMS to the doctors at Newton Medical all the way to Rescue Air and then Egleston," he said. "And I can’t give credit enough for the school staff not only starting CPR, but doing it correctly. That made a big difference."
While in the hospital, Nancy said she received a call every day from someone at the school and that the team’s pastor put James on the prayer list at his church, resulting in not only silent prayers but also a large stack of cards from total strangers who heard about James’ situation and wanted to send their well wishes.
"We felt those prayers," said Nancy. "You know you always have your little doubts about God and doubts about prayer but I don’t have any doubts about it. Prayer works – I’m a believer."
A week after being brought into the Intensive Care Unit at Egleston, James was well enough to walk out of the hospital. On March 3 he should be done with therapy and he expects to be given the green light by doctors to return to school, something he says he’s looking forward to.
"I don’t remember passing out, not feeling well – none of it," said James. "It was days before I woke up and I didn’t have any idea what had happened."
NHS Principal Dr. Roderick Sams has been checking up on James since the event happened and gave credit to several people in his school that day. Along with Pitts and Sams, Assistant Principals Tracey Curtis and John Ellenberg, School Resource Officer and Newton Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jeremy Viera were instrumental in helping to save James’ life.
"I am extremely proud of the response of the Newton High School family toward James in his time of crisis," said Sams. "I want to especially thank Ms. Pitts for providing the medical guidance we all needed to provide whatever assistance we could. Even though things were somewhat chaotic for a moment, the Newton High family responded to the needs of one of its own in such a way that I feel honored to be a part of this team. Our prayers continue to be with James and his family."
To look at James no one would have any idea of what happened to him that day, his outside hasn’t changed but he’s experienced more internal change then what was done to his mighty heart.
"It really did change me," he said. "It made me look at life in a different way and I want to live my life to the fullest. You never know when it could end."