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Published January 22, 2011, 12:00 AM

Perham athlete remains critical after heart surgery

Student’s diagnosis not yet disclosed
A Perham, Minn., boys basketball player who collapsed during a game Thursday night remained in critical condition following heart surgery Friday at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo.

A Perham, Minn., boys basketball player who collapsed during a game Thursday night remained in critical condition following heart surgery Friday at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo.

Zach Gabbard, a high school junior, had surgery to “place a device that will allow his heart to rest for a couple of days,” according to a journal update on CaringBridge.com, a website used to inform people of a patient’s condition.

Gabbard’s CaringBridge site received nearly 12,000 visits by Friday night.

Gabbard remained on a ventilator, and doctors were monitoring the pressure in his brain through a catheter. “It may take up to 72 hours before we may see any progress,” the update said.

Late Friday night, Sanford representatives said Gabbard’s condition remained critical.

“I very much pray for Zach and his family,” said Denise Cuchna, a longtime registered nurse and paramedic who rushed to Gabbard’s aid Thursday night in Glyndon, Minn.

Although Gabbard’s diagnosis wasn’t disclosed, Sanford Medical Center hosted a news conference Friday with cardiologists Dr. Joshua Wynne and Dr. Matthew Trefz.

Wynne, an expert in congenital heart problems and the dean of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Science, said congenital heart disease is one of dozens of possible causes when a young athlete collapses during competition.

Wynne and Trefz are not treating Gabbard.

There are four primary types of heart disease that could lead to a collapse, Wynne said:

  • A patient could have a thickening of the heart’s walls, which occurs in one in 500 people.

    This usually doesn’t produce severe symptoms but could produce a collapse during exercise or sudden death.

  • A child under the age of 13 could be hit by a projectile and develop an irregular heartbeat.

  • A blocked artery or an artery that has grown incorrectly in the womb.

  • Most commonly, an inflammation of the heart called myocarditis. This can occur after a virus.

Wynne said this occurs sporadically throughout the year but with an increased frequency around the time flu and viral syndromes are prevalent.

“The vast majority of children are going to do just fine,” Wynne said.

Trefz, a pediatric cardiologist, said 0.5 to 1 percent of children have congenital heart disease.

About seven to eight in 1 million suffer sudden cardiac death per year, Trefz said.

The most important determinations of a patient’s long-term prognosis are how quickly they are resuscitated and the underlying medical condition.

Several people quickly jumped in to help Gabbard on Thursday night.

Gabbard collapsed halfway into the first half of Perham’s game against Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton. Gabbard was running down the court when he fell to the floor near Perham’s bench.

Watching the game with her 15-year-old son from the stands, Cuchna knew the situation was serious when she saw a Perham physician rush to Gabbard’s side.

Cuchna said D-G-F Principal Terry Karger called 911 as she administered the Automated External Defibrillator to jump-start Gabbard’s heart.

Gabbard was breathing on his own and had a pulse when Cuchna first stepped in to help, but Gabbard’s heart eventually stopped.

Cuchna said she pressed the button to shock Gabbard’s heart twice before paramedics arrived.

“I think you get into a zone and do what you need to do because you’ve done it before,” said Cuchna, a Dilworth resident who spent eight years as a paramedic and 12 years as a licensed nurse. “The two biggest things that stand out is that it was really, really quiet. It was incredibly silent in there. It was just weird to have all those people in that big room and have it that silent.”

Meanwhile on Friday, students and school staff members in Perham who know Gabbard were anxious but praying for a speedy recovery.

Gabbard’s teammates spent Thursday night making T-shirts to “help keep the faith,” as they waited for updates on his condition.

Perham-Dent Superintendent Tamara Uselman and Athletic Director Fred Sailer met with the boys and girls basketball teams Friday and decided to cancel all evening athletic events.

“They said they knew Zach would want them to play but thought they just weren’t able to be there emotionally,” Uselman said.

She said the school counselor was available to talk with students and a room was set aside for students to talk with each other if needed. Students and staff are leaning on each other for comfort while so many questions remain unanswered, Uselman said.

“It’s been a very hard day at Perham schools,” Uselman said Friday. “But if thoughts and prayers could cure someone, Zach would walk out of here today.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Heath Hotzler at (701) 241-5562.

Hotzler’s blogs can be found at www.areavoices.com. Ashley Bergen, a reporter for the East Otter Tail Focus, Perham, contributed to this report.

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