October 2nd, 2009
01:21 PM ET

No easy answer for cardiac arrest survivor

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Last week I traveled with Dr. Sanjay Gupta to Levittown, Pennsylvania, to meet Chris Brooks, a recent college grad who survived an unexplained cardiac arrest that stopped his heart for more than 15 minutes. That he survived – and without brain damage – is pretty incredible, and probably a tribute to the CPR performed by his father and the fact that he was cooled by emergency physicians at the local hospital, and at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was transferred afterwards.

What caught my attention the other day came when we asked Brooks whether doctors had figured out what caused the cardiac arrest in the first place. It’s a life-or-death question; Brooks now has a defibrillator implanted in his chest, and in the past six months it’s been triggered to shock him twice. In other words, his heart is stopping for no obvious reason.

But he hasn’t gone for a battery of tests that might provide an answer. The reason: no health insurance. He was covered by a family policy at the time of his cardiac arrest, but no more. “What we’re dealing now is insurance,” Brooks told us. “I’m 22 years old and not in college any more, so I don’t have insurance. I can’t see [my cardiologist] now. I want to, I guess, but I can’t.” His doctors are looking for a way to make it work, but in the best-case scenario it’s delaying those tests by two to three months - a reminder that even serious illness can slip through the cracks of the current health care system.

Health care bills moving through Congress might make life easier for Brooks; they would let people under 26 still be covered on their parents’ insurance. But the bills would also place a new burden on those 26 or older, by requiring them to purchase insurance or pay a penalty. Critics say people should be free to take the risk of going insurance-free, if they like – or if they can’t afford it.

Are you under 30 without health insurance? Do you have children in that boat? What would you do if there were a serious health crisis?

Programming note: See Chris Brooks’ story as part of Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s special, “Cheating Death,” October 17, 8 p.m.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.