Swimmer defies the odds nine months after he nearly died

Patient Stories |


Zane 3 CRAFT

He was a champion athlete, until his heart gave out. Now this high school junior hopes to make a splash outside the pool as a coach.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Christa Hendrickson has made the three-hour trip to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis so often that her car GPS began marking Riley as “home.”

For her and son Zane, however, home is Boonville, Indiana, a small town near Evansville that has wrapped its arms around the family ever since Zane collapsed on his high school pool deck in January and nearly died.

Zane, a champion swimmer, suffered a heart attack and stroke and would not have survived had it not been for the heroic efforts of a team of medical personnel spanning three hospitals.

By his mom’s count, his heart actually stopped nine times. She was with her son in the emergency department of Deaconess Hospital in Evansville when he coded the first time. When his heart stopped, hers nearly did too.

Collaboration among physicians, therapists, nurses and other clinicians at Riley, Deaconess and IU Health Methodist Hospital ensured that Zane made it safely to Riley while on ECMO (heart-lung bypass).

Open-heart surgery performed by Dr. Mark Turrentine repaired a heart defect that had gone undiagnosed Zane’s whole life. But the multiple cardiac arrests had done plenty of damage, leaving his endocardial layer scarred and reducing the heart’s ability to pump blood.

After a grueling 2½-month recovery at Riley, Zane went home to Boonville to continue therapy on an outpatient basis and try to reclaim the life he knew before Jan. 7, 2021.

Zane at outpatient therapy


At the six-month mark on July 7, Christa posted on Facebook about the day Zane’s life – and hers – changed forever.

“Six months since I heard the words, ‘You need to get in here right away; your son is very sick and will likely go on a ventilator.’ Six months since seeing the medical team in the Emergency Department perform CPR on my son. Six months since hearing the words, ‘This is a fatal event.’ Six months since watching the doctors and nurses work tirelessly for hours to keep him alive.”

And then: “Six months since doctors and staff at three different hospitals collaborated to coordinate a life-saving event that had never been done before and for which I will forever be grateful.”

Now nine months after his ordeal began, Zane, 16, has accomplished a lot. Over the summer, he worked, got his driver’s license and completed his interrupted sophomore year of high school, maintaining a 4.0 GPA. In August, he returned to in-person classes for his junior year.

Zane celebrates his 16th birthday

There were bumps along the way – a readmission to Riley in late March as his damaged heart struggled to heal, the realization that his swimming career was on hold, and a future that looked far different than he had imagined.

But a recent trip back to Riley for a follow-up echocardiogram and other tests reminded him how far he has come.

“It might not have been the path we planned, and the detour hasn’t always been the easiest to navigate, but we are still moving forward and forging new pathways,” Christa said.

Last week’s visit got off to a great start when Zane and his mom learned that cardiac sonographer Nancy Kehlenbrink, aka “Fancy Nancy,” would be doing his ECHO.

Kehlenbrink’s quick wit and compassion make her a favorite among her patients and their parents.

“Every time I see him, I am reminded of the amazing miracle I was blessed to witness over time,” Kehlenbrink said.

She will never forget the day Zane first became aware of his surroundings at Riley. She was doing his ECHO and was startled but delighted when he began talking to her.

“The next thing you know, his mom walked into the room and he proceeded to scold her because he could not get hold of her by phone.”

With a stern look and voice, Kehlenbrink recalled, he asked his mom where she had been.

“Christa and I both teared up because we knew the extent of the miracle we were witnessing in that moment.”

Zane with Riley Children's Health Employee


Drs. Adam Kean and John Parent continue to follow Zane, monitoring his heart function. Talk of a heart transplant has been set aside for the moment, but it remains a very real possibility as Zane is being treated for heart failure, a chronic condition in which the heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should.

The ECHO showed Zane’s heart was operating at about the same level as it had been two months previously.

“We didn’t get the improvement we had hoped to see, but his EF (ejection fraction) held steady at 30-32%,” Christa said.

Zane’s energy level is decent, considering all he has gone through, his mom said, but Dr. Parent is not comfortable with him resuming swimming, at least not yet.

So, Zane has turned his focus toward coaching.

“He just completed all of his coursework to get certified with Indiana Swimming/USA Swimming,” Christa said.

And perhaps the best news, all things considered, he has been asked by his high school to be an assistant swim coach.

Zane at school

One more thing: His English class was given the assignment to write persuasive essays to encourage classmates to donate to their favorite charities. Zane’s was chosen, and the class donated funds to Riley.

“Today, Zane’s heart is scarred and functioning at about half what it should be, but he is alive,” his mom wrote. “His left hand doesn’t work as it should, but he is alive. … He is able to go to school and work and hang out with friends. He is able to play games and laugh and be witty. He is able to hug his mom and roll his eyes at her for constantly nagging him. … He is alive.”

Submitted and file photos

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