Standing tall and handsome and looking the picture of good health, it's hard to believe that Joe Lebeda was near death just over a month ago. That stark difference could be attested to by the firefighters, paramedics, doctors and nurses who reunited with him today to celebrate his remarkable recovery after his heart stopped during the 2014 Los Angeles Marathon.
Los Angeles Fire Department personnel, members of the UCLA and USC medical teams, and LA ASICS Marathon representatives joined Lebeda at a local fire station where he thanked representatives of these organizations for saving his life.
Lebeda was running the 2014 ASICS L.A. Marathon on March 15 when, at mile 20, he collapsed in cardiac arrest. Marathon medical volunteers affiliated with USC quickly reached 28-year-old Lebeda and began CPR, while LAFD EMTs and firefighter/paramedics stationed along the race course also arrived quickly to provide advanced life support measures.
When paramedics alerted Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center that Lebeda had collapsed in the middle of the marathon, UCLA emergency physicians and nurses went on special alert in the ER.
Although he is only 28 years old, Lebeda’s heart suddenly stopped; he collapsed to the ground and needed immediate CPR and automatic defibrillation. His heart was restarted, but he remained unconscious and unable to wake up. The ambulance arrived three minutes later, and the UCLA team rushed to assess his condition and stabilize him.
Upon arrival at UCLA’s emergency department, Lebeda was not breathing well and needed a special breathing tube inserted. His temperature was very high, exceeding 39 C (102 F), and the ER started to cool him by infusing cold fluids into his veins in order to prevent further damage. The team next performed a battery of tests to discover what went wrong and caused his heart to stop. A brain CT scan and a chest X-ray revealed nothing abnormal. Yet he remained comatose.
Lebeda was admitted UCLA’s neuro-intensive care unit under the care of its director, Dr. Paul Vespa, professor of neurology and neurosurgery. Given his cardiac arrest and presumed injury to the brain due to a lack of oxygen, Vespa induced therapeutic hypothermia to lower Lebeda’s temperature to 33 C (91 F) by active cooling using a special machine. The cooling helped to protect his brain from further injury.
“When Jode remained in a coma, we suspected he was suffering silent seizures, which are common after cardiac arrest," Vespa explained. "We used brain-monitoring to detect the seizures and then treated him to protect his brain. That is our motto: ‘To detect and protect.’ UCLA pioneered this type of brain monitoring, and it’s available only at specialized neurocritical care centers like ours.”
In the neuro-intensive care unit, Lebeda’s brain was carefully monitored, and he was treated with high-dose anti-seizure medications to further protect his brain. This special care — from the emergency department to the neuro-intensive care unit — is possible at only a small number of medical centers in the nation.
Lebeda was kept ‘on ice’ for many days. He gradually was brought back to consciousness after seven days. Doctors believe Lebeda has made a full recovery; by the time he was ready to leave the ICU and be released from the medical center, he was joking with his doctors and nurses.
“The sheer number of pieces that had to fall into place to enable me to survive is staggering to imagine,” said Lebeda at today's reunion. “Words cannot describle the gratitude I feel for the trained volunteers and LAFD members who reacted instantly to save my life. Additionally, the expert care I received from Dr. Vespa and the rest of the UCLA medical staff following the marathon has allowed me to be here physically, just as I was before the race. This experience has been one of those life-altering events that will forever change my perspective on all things. The importance of first responders and human compassion in our society has never felt more real."
“I was devastated when I had to contact his parents to tell them the news,” recalled Dr. Kateri Roessler-Henderson, emergency medicine resident at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center’s emergency department. “I followed his chart after he left the emergency department to see how he was doing and was heartened to know that he was making such an amazing recovery, thanks to the medical team’s efforts. Seeing him here today was icing on the cake. It’s wonderful to know that he’s back at work and doing so well.”
Due to the fires and evacuations in portions of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, UCLA Health has closed clinics in Westlake Village, Malibu and Thousand Oaks. Other clinics and our medical centers remain open.