CLEVELAND – A talented soccer and basketball player, 10-year-old Sophia Pecjak had been complaining of pains in her chest and a rapid heartbeat.
Trips to her pediatrician and the emergency room revealed she had likely contracted a form of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle usually caused by a viral infection, such as influenza.
Pecjak soon found herself in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Cleveland Clinic Children’s.
“I remember saying that I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t develop more arrhythmias that will be pretty significant,” said pediatric electrophysiologist Peter Aziz, M.D.
Moments later, Pecjak went into full cardiac arrest. With mom Carole, and dad Michael, looking on in shock, Dr. Aziz and Gerard Boyle, M.D., rushed in and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
Later that day, she went into cardiac arrest again, and was again revived, while waiting to be placed on venoarterial extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a room-sized device that often serves as a bridge for patients awaiting heart or lung transplants.
Despite a series of events over the next few days that threatened her life, Pecjak persevered.
Further testing revealed she had a disease called fulminant myocarditis, which can result in extremes such as sudden death or resolving on its own in a matter of days.
Fortunately, Pecjak was off ECMO after five days, and was discharged soon after.
“Generally, patients on ECMO have to be heavily sedated. It can be very difficult to endure,” said Dr. Boyle “But Sophia always remained calm. At one point, she motioned and made it clear she wanted a selfie of herself on ECMO, with the breathing tube in. Of course, she had a smile on her face.”
Pecjak bounced back quickly but a long recovery remained ahead. Extremely weak from the effects of the virus and her cardiac events, she endured months of physical rehabilitation.
While she couldn’t return to playing sports for more than a year, she stayed around them – often standing alone, dribbling a basketball, during practices held by her father, who was a coach at the time.
Eventually, with the help of medication, the heart episodes decreased and ultimately stopped. Pecjak returned to the sports she loves. She played goalie and forward mostly, on the JV soccer team in the fall, as well as some varsity games. She also splits time between the varsity and JV teams in basketball.
“It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be able to play again,” said Pecjak, who is now a sophomore at Lake Catholic High School in her hometown of Mentor, Ohio. “When people find out what happened, they’re kind of shocked that I’m fine now. I guess my case was very out of the ordinary.”
“Sophia proved at that time, and continues to prove, that she is a special soul,” said Dr. Boyle. “She never let the disease define her. From the beginning, she was determined to be back playing sports.”