In November 2013, young actress Ellie Whelan was performing in front of a packed auditorium at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology when she collapsed onstage. Audience members thought it was part of the act; then she didn’t get up. At the age of 16, she had suffered a cardiac arrest.
The school nurse performed chest compressions while a teacher gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Despite their interventions, she still lost her pulse. Paramedics, then her father, arrived.
“I stepped through the door as they’re beginning to shock her,” recalls her father, Jim Whelan. “They shocked her three times in front of me.” Her mother, meanwhile, was unaware of the situation unfolding.
An ambulance took her to Southside Regional Medical Center, where, because of the direness of the situation, she was packed in ice as part of the ARCTIC protocol. The treatment involves cooling the body to prevent further cell death. Then she was airlifted to VCU Medical Center.
“I spent two days in an induced coma,” says Ellie Whelan. “I didn’t have any brain waves. My parents were pretty certain that it was the end for me, but my doctors really stayed calm and collected, and they were really comforting to my parents. I really don’t think that they would have been able to get through it without people like Dr. [Mary Ann] Peberdy,” the director of the ARCTIC program.
Once she emerged from her coma, she underwent extensive physical and genetic testing. The tests determined that her erratic heartbeat was caused by a gene mutation in the cells around her heart. VCU Director of Cardiology Dr. Kenneth Ellenbogen worked with a Mayo Clinic geneticist to determine the best pharmaceutical course for her condition. She also received an implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD).
A year and a half after her traumatic experience, Whelan is now a junior at Appomattox, still involved in musical theater. She also teaches cotillion at the Richmond Women’s Club. “I was really worried that I wasn’t going to be able to do stuff like that again, and that’s really scary because that’s what I’ve been doing forever, that’s my passion,” she says.
Her brush with death “has really put a lot of things into perspective. I think that probably for the first time since I was really little, I’m comfortable in my own skin. I’m really happy with who I am. And when I’m not happy, I’m not scared to change it anymore,” she says, noting that she even has a new short haircut, something she has always wanted to try.
Encouraged by her friends, she now shares her story with others. She spoke at the American Heart Association’s “Bollywood Goes Red” gala at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in February and is also part of an ad campaign for VCU Medical Center.
Audiences connect with her “because she’s smart, she’s warm, she’s funny, she has a lot of insight into people and the human condition, and she says what she feels,” says Dr. Ellenbogen. “She’s just an amazing human being.”
Whelan, who had some warning signs before her arrest, says that a previous doctor didn’t take her concerns seriously enough because she is a teenager. “I think it’s really important to get the word out, that heart problems aren’t just for people who are older; they can happen to anybody,” she says.