Reagan High School guard Kaeyel Moore.
Kaeyel Moore, 16, is a junior at Reagan High School. Credit: Courtesy / John Hirst

Three minutes into a morning basketball drill in the school gym, Reagan High School guard Kaeyel Moore collapsed, hitting the floor with a thud. His eyes rolled back and his face turned blue. Within seconds, he stopped breathing.

Moore, a 16-year-old junior, had suffered sudden cardiac arrest, which claims more than 350,000 lives a year in the United States. A trainer administered chest compressions and used an automated external defibrillator (AED) to shock Moore’s heart. An ambulance rushed him to a hospital.

Three days later, to almost everyone’s disbelief, Moore appeared at Blossom Athletic Center’s Littleton Gym, cheering from the bench during Reagan’s 55-39 loss to rival Johnson High School on Friday night.

“He is my miracle,” said his mother, Lakisha Moore-Hamilton. “That’s for sure.”

Fewer than 8 percent of those who suffer cardiac arrest outside a hospital survive, according to the American Heart Association. And 88 percent of all cardiac arrests occur at home.

For Moore, every detail of his cardiac arrest broke in his favor. Moore collapsed in Reagan’s gym – just next door to North Central Baptist Hospital. The head trainer and two student trainers appeared within minutes. The defibrillator produced a shock that restored Moore’s breathing. He soon received care from Dr. David Bush, one of the few pediatric electrophysiologists in San Antonio.

On Friday night, during Reagan’s spirited, fourth-quarter comeback effort that fell short, Moore inspired his teammates with his presence and encouragement. “It was fun,” he said, “because they are like brothers to me.”

The day before, Moore vowed from his hospital bed that he would be at the District 26-6A game, supporting his teammates. Others weren’t so sure. “It was incredible that he was there,” Reagan Coach John Hirst said. 

Reagan High School guard Kaeyel Moore lies in a hospital bed after suffering sudden cardiac arrest during basketball practice.

Sudden cardiac arrest strikes as its name implies, without warning or symptoms, the result of structural or electrical disorders in the heart. Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death for young athletes on the playing field, according to Dr. Jonathan Drezner, team doctor for the Seattle Seahawks. About every three days, he said, an athlete in middle school, high school, or college experiences sudden cardiac arrest. Behind that startling statistic is a measure of good news.

“More and more young athletes are resuscitating and surviving,” said Drezner, professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Washington.

Drezner said the survival rate for athletes has increased from 11 percent to nearly 43 percent, which is far greater than the general population’s. More lives are saved, he said, due to the growing number of AEDs at schools and athletic fields.

“I’m happy with the progress,” Drezner said, “but more work needs to be done.”

Drezner can relate to athletes better than most physicians. A basketball player at Brown University, he won the Woody Grimshaw Memorial Award in 1989 as the team’s best defender. In 1992, he won the Bernard V. Buonanno Jr. ’60 Award as the top scholar-athlete. Brown named him to the school’s all-decade team for the 1990s.

In 2015, Drezner and 10 colleagues released a report on the incidence of sudden cardiac death in NCAA athletes. Of the 514 athletes who died between 2003 and 2013, the most common cause was an accident. The most common medical cause was sudden cardiac arrest. The study concluded that black, male basketball players face the highest risk of sudden cardiac arrest.

“We don’t fully understand the reasons for that,” Drezner said.

Moore fits the precise profile of gender, race, and sport. Had he suffered sudden cardiac arrest in the classroom or at home, his mother said, Moore most likely would be dead. He was in the right place at the right time with the right personnel and equipment when his heart stopped. 

“A lot of things had to happen just right for us,” Hirst said, “and thankfully they did.”

Hirst saw Moore collapse out of the corner of one eye. At first, he thought his player had tripped. When Moore began to turn blue, Hirst called for a trainer and cleared the gym. Joe Martinez, a former trainer at the University of Colorado, arrived with two student trainers, Elizabeth Araujo and Gabriella Rendon, who brought the AED.

“I realized he was not breathing and didn’t have pulse,” Martinez said. “One of my student trainers slid the AED machine right next to me. I set it up and delivered the shock. I started a second round of compressions because that’s what the AED instructed me to do. I remember feeling his heart beat through his chest. He started to come to and I kept talking to him, waiting for EMS to arrive.”

Moore-Hamilton learned of her son’s medical emergency while she was in Houston on business, and rushed to San Antonio. Her husband, Michael Hamilton, left work and arrived at the hospital within minutes. “Your son,” the doctor told Moore-Hamilton, “is going to be fine.”

The prognosis brought tears of gratitude from family members and from the Reagan community. “I wish I had words to describe how I felt,” Hirst said. “It’s greater than any joy, greater than any relief. It’s unbelievable.”

On Thursday, doctors implanted a subcutaneous defibrillator on Moore’s left side, just below his armpit. The device aims to detect life-threatening rapid heart rhythms and “terminate” them, thus keeping the patient alive. Moore won’t be able to play this year but remains hopeful about his basketball future.

“The doctor has committed to work[ing] with him regarding next year,” Moore-Hamilton said. “They have not been able to confirm a genetic condition yet, but hope the genetics test will reveal answers in six to eight weeks.”

Moore doesn’t remember falling. He remembers waking up to light. There were faces and voices and a ride in an ambulance. And then, just days later, there were cuts and screens, a ball falling through the net and a young man on the bench, rising to cheer.

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native and award-winning journalist.