Sunday, January 13, 2002

This Time a Boy Survives Efforts of Northport couple who lost son help to save a life

BY: Samuel Bruchey. STAFF WRITER

January 13, 2002 - They were two boys from Northport and Smithtown, teenage strangers bound by a single tragic strand.

Louis Acompora, 14, was outgoing, a starting goalie and co- captain of the Northport High School freshman lacrosse team. Muhammad Shah, 15, was more spectator than star. The Smithtown High School sophomore cheered the 49ers for their return to the playoffs, and fretted when Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy resigned.

On a cold and raw December Monday at Smithtown High School, the day Shah's heart accelerated wildly then abruptly stopped, their fates overlapped, and then diverged.

A year before, Acompora 's heart had stopped just as abruptly during his team's first lacrosse game of the season. But whereas Acompora died, surrounded by paramedics, coaches and his parents who were unable to restart his heart, Shah survived.

His pulse was coaxed back with a portable defibrillator, equipment the school bought in September, a year after learning of Acompora 's death, and used for the first time that day.

"Every school should have one," Shah's mother, Shahina Shah, said. "He [Louis Acompora ] was not a cardiac patient. Accidents do happen. They happen to everyone."

Shah's accident was not without premonition. A dark-eyed boy with a sweet and toothy smile, Shah was born with a vein missing between his heart and lungs. He had a pacemaker implanted when he was 8, his mother said.

Seconds before his collapse, Shah's pacemaker recorded that his heart-rate shot from 93 to 400 beats-per-minute.

He had just left first-period English. It was 8 a.m., and Shah was walking along an outdoor corridor, on his way to his next class, Fundamentals of Flying. As he climbed five steps leading to the school's separate freshman campus, he buckled, then dropped.

Another student rolled him over onto the grass and ran for help. Nurses and security guards converged. They cut off his black New Jersey Devils shirt and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

His body was convulsing and his face turned blue.

At 8:20 a.m., a guidance counselor called Shah's mother.

When she picked up the phone, Shahina Shah said her mind scrambled madly back to earlier that morning. She saw Muhammad gulping down his milk, riding quietly beside her in the car, telling her he felt fine, then trudging off, his green back-pack low and heavy with eight classes worth of books.

"I thought maybe she was calling about his studies," she said. "When I found out, Oh God, I just kept asking 'Is he breathing? Is he breathing?'"

"She said, 'We don't know.'"

Two defibrillator pads were placed on both sides of Shah's heart, and between heart compressions he was shocked. By the third shock, a faint pulse returned.

"It did everything it was supposed to do," Liz Chitkara, a school nurse, said.

Shah was taken to St. Catherine's Hospital in Smithtown, then transferred later that morning to his cardiologist at Stony Brook University Hospital.

By the time he arrived, Shah, who weighs 70 pounds, had developed pneumonia. His body temperature was 75 degrees. After more than one week on a respirator, his pacemaker was replaced on Dec. 26 with a device that functions as both pacemaker and defibrillator.

The day after the procedure, Shah went home.

Recuperating earlier this week, Shah hid his eyes under the lowered lid of his 49ers cap, and burrowed his hands into an oversized yellow sweatshirt when asked how he felt.

He said he was back eating his favorite food - a meat and rice dish called biryani - playing computer games, mostly Age of Empire, and riding a stationary bicycle for physical therapy three times a week.

Soon, his mother added, he will begin home tutoring, and may return to school by Easter.

His recovery has been heartening for Louis Acompora 's parents, John and Karen.

After Louis died, they began pressing schools to buy the $3,000 defibrillators. At the time, Karen Acompora said, few in Suffolk County had one. Now, about 25 do, she said.

"We mandate things in New York State for testing so all fourth- graders can read," said Nick Schroeder, Smithtown's athletic director, who joined a county task force with the Acomporas . "Schools are areas of community congregation. The state should be able to say [the students'] lives are important."

Schroeder convinced a Booster Club in Smithtown to purchase a defibrillator last year. In August, the school district bought another six, and has ordered three more.

Defibrillation was the only thing that was not done when Louis stopped breathing, John Acompora said. He stood on the sideline that day with his wife, he said, when Louis blocked a shot on goal with his chest and then dropped. He thought Louis had the wind knocked out of him and didn't want to embarrass his son by running out onto the field, he said.

But after several minutes, Karen was beside herself. He walked slowly toward a crowd hovered over his son. He opened his chin strap, took out his mouthpiece. "Lou, answer me, Lou! Answer me, Lou!" someone was yelling.

"In the very near future, defibrillators will be a household word," John Acompora said. "I wish they had been then."

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