BLOOMFIELD, NJ — A sophomore member of the Bloomfield High School track team collapsed during practice at Foley Field on Tuesday, March 8, when her heart apparently stopped.
The girl, Ava Covington, was revived by a coach using a defibrillator and performing CPR. She is now hospitalized at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, in New York, where she is scheduled for open-heart surgery Tuesday, March 22.
In a BHS Athletic Department press release dated March 10, Director Steve Jenkins said an athlete had collapsed on the track.
“When coaches responded, they found her unresponsive and not breathing,” he said. “They sprung into action and a combination of CPR and shocking with an AED revived her. When the professionals arrived on the scene, they continued the treatment and stabilized her before transporting her to the hospital.”
On Monday, March 14, during an interview at the girl’s Dewey Street home, her father, Ken Covington, said a similar incident had happened to his daughter some time before while she played basketball at the Demarest Elementary School gym.
“She was 10 when she had her first episode and passed out,” he said. “She was running up and down the court.”
During that incident, Covington had been watching his daughter play when his wife called him on his cell phone. He stepped out of the gym to speak to her. During that time, Ava slumped to the floor.
“Someone came and got me,” he said. “She did not have to be revived, but she was out for maybe 10 seconds. Her eyes were rolled back. It felt like two hours to me.”
Covington said he called out his daughter’s name. She took a deep breath, regained consciousness and asked what had happened.
During that earlier episode, the girl was taken to Clara Maass Hospital by the EMS. At the hospital, it was thought that she was dehydrated. But it was the allergist of the girl’s mother, Tami, who warned the family not to let the incident pass without further investigation. The allergist recommended a cardiologist at Columbia Presbyterian. Ava was taken there for an electrocardiogram and it was determined she had a heart condition. Covington said his daughter had an anomalous left coronary artery of the right valsalva.
“On a normal heart, you have a left and right coronary, the arteries that attach to the heart,” he said. “Her left one, instead of being on the left, wraps around to the right and gets pinched. It’s like a water hose when you don’t roll it up properly. That’s what the cardiologist said.”
Covington said because his daughter’s artery was pinched, her heart could not pump enough blood when she physically exerted herself. Without enough blood, which provides the brain with oxygen, a person could pass out. This is what happened to his daughter at Demarest.
“It would look like a heart attack or seizure, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s very quick. It takes only a couple of seconds.”
Covington also mentioned that before the basketball incident, Ava would become very tired after playing soccer. But with no idea that she had a congenital heart condition, these bouts of fatigue and lightheadedness passed without suspicion.
After the Demarest incident, Ava underwent heart surgery and her pinched artery was shortened.
“It’s like you have a hose that’s too long,” Covington said. “They cut it and reattached it and unkinked it.”
He said the surgical procedure is called unroofing because the artery is pinched like the peak of a roof. Ava was out of school for about three weeks.
Covington said that he learned Ava had collapsed at Foley Field last week while he was driving on the Staten Island Expressway. His wife called and told him. She was hysterical, he said.
“She told me Ava passed out and they had to use the defibrillator,” he said. “My wife was in Manhattan. I called my best friend, James Rucker. He’s a landscaper and was working in Bloomfield. When I called him, he was getting gas. He rushed over to Foley Field.”
Covington said Rucker relayed information to him as he headed for New Jersey. He was told the EMS had given his daughter a sedative and she was being taken to Clara Maass Hospital. He later learned that at the hospital she was given more sedative.
“They didn’t know what was wrong,” he said of the hospital staff. “They started treating her for seizures. She responded in a ‘fight or flight’ manner. She was flailing at them. But it was not seizures. When I got there, maybe a half-hour later, I told the doctor it wasn’t seizures. I told him her condition. The emergency room is a tough place. They don’t know a person’s history. You’re on the brink of life and death. You’re just trying to stabilize them.”
The hospital contacted Ava’s cardiologist, the same surgeon who had operated on her when she was 10. Covington said his daughter was unconscious as she waited to be transferred to Columbia Presbyterian. With Covington was his wife, mother, best friend and BHS track coaches. At about 9 p.m., she was transferred to New York.
The next afternoon, Ava showed signs of regaining consciousness. But after about five minutes, she would lose unconscious.
“That happened to her all Wednesday,” Covington said. “Every couple of hours we’d have to explain to her she had collapsed at track practice.”
A cardiogram was taken and it was determined that scar tissue had developed around the previous surgery. Ava’s cardiologist said it was the first time this had happened to a patient of his, but it was unlikely to occur again. The doctor explained that he believed the first surgery occurred before a period of rapid growth for the girl.
“She’s 16 now,” Covington said. “When she was 10, she was at the stage where everything changes.”
On Thursday morning, Covington said his daughter finally started to recover.
“She could have a conversation for more than 30 seconds and remember previous conversations,” he said. “She didn’t know what happened to Wednesday.”
Covington, who was on the phone with his wife and daughter during most of this interview, said Ava was in pretty good
spirits but she did not want to make a statement.
“She’s pretty level-headed and grateful how things turned out,” he said. “But she’s 16 and thinks some things stink because she’ll be missing some things like induction into the foreign language honor society. That’s March 31. And more importantly, she’ll miss the music department’s trip to Disney World on April 6.”
Covington said his family feels very blessed.
“It unfortunate it had to happen, but fortunate the way it happened,” he said. “There are people walking around not knowing they have a heart defect and are at risk just doing normal activities. This could have happened to her running for the bus and people around her wouldn’t have been able to bring her back.”
In his press release, Jenkins said the word hero is overused in sports.
“But track head coach Dana Lavorne, assistants Leo Donaldson, Terry Iavarone, Kelechi Ibeh, Casey Newman and Tim White are real heroes,” he said. “Without their actions, it is very likely we would have had a tragedy.”
Jenkins also credited Mike Smith, BHS physical education and health teacher, and volleyball coach Louis Stevens, for training all BHS coaches in CPR and first aid.
Covington said he encourages all parents to have their children involved in sports to find out if anything is wrong with the child’s heart.
“If there is anything wrong, and you’re young, you can get it fixed,” he said. “It took an allergist, recommended by a friend of my wife, who said you can’t mess around with this.”