Omar Carter was feeling good.
At 25, the former Charlotte Christian and Appalachian State basketball star had just finished a successful first season of professional basketball in Brazil. He had returned home to Charlotte in early July to relax with friends and family and to play in the citys top summer basketball league.
On July 11 at about 9:30 p.m. a few seconds before his heart stopped and his life changed Carter sprinted down the left side of the court of a 2-on-1 fast break. He and Dorenzo Hudson, his teammate and close friend, passed the ball back and forth.
Kelly Thomas was one of about 100 people in the stands that Tuesday night at Grady Cole Center in uptown Charlotte. Thomas had decided to go watch another friend of hers play. It was a last-minute decision. She hadnt been to a league game in two years. She had never met Carter.
Carters and Thomass lives intersected that night in a way no one could have predicted. What happened over the next few minutes and days would ultimately bring North Carolinas governor to tears. Gov. Pat McCrory has been a family friend and mentor to Carter and his twin brother, Lamar, for close to 15 years.
This whole thing, McCrory said in a phone interview, was a miracle.
After Carters final pass to Hudson, he started to backpedal. Hudson missed the layup, turned and was looking directly at Carter at the moment Carter went into what doctors would later term a sudden cardiac arrest.
I saw Omars eyes roll back into his head, Hudson said. He stumbled, fell on his back and then hit his head on the floor. Everything stopped. And as people huddled around him and tried to figure out what was wrong, I saw this lady in a light pink dress. She was coming out of the stands and headed straight toward him.
Thomas, who grew up and still lives in Gastonia, likes basketball. But she doesnt like it so much that she needed to see every single play of a free-admission, summer-league game. She and another friend who had ridden with her to the game had gone to the bathroom in the first quarter. So they did not see Carter collapse on the court. She walked back into the arena, saw the huddle around Carter and assumed he either had a leg injury or had gotten overheated.
Thomas sat on the bleachers for a second, waiting for the game to resume. Then she heard someone on the floor say, Hes not responding! Hes not breathing!
Thomas, 30, knew the dangers of those words. She works as a nurse in the cardiac intensive care unit at Carolinas Medical Center. In the past three years, she has seen patients by the dozens live and die after serious heart problems. But she had never seen anything like this happen outside of the hospital.
I had heels on, so I took my heels off and I ran down there, Thomas said. At first they wouldnt let me near him, and I said, Im a cardiac ICU nurse! Then they let me closer to him. I felt for his pulse. It was very weak. And then I guess I had to get sort of bossy.
Omar was the star
Fraternal twins Omar and Lamar Carter were born in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1988. Their mother, Stephanie Tyson, moved to Charlotte when the twins were 4 years old. Tyson was interested in politics she once was an appointed board member for Charlottes parks and recreation department. She thought it would be good for her boys to be exposed to the workings of democracy, so she started taking them to Charlotte city council meetings in the mid-1990s.
Since few children ever show up at those meetings, the twins caused a stir. City council members gave hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets to help send Omar and Lamars team to two out-of-state pee wee football bowl games in 1997.
McCrory was Charlottes mayor by that time. He took a particular liking to the twins. He began to mentor them going to eat lunch with them at school, occasionally taking them to a movie or an NBA game. The two families ate dinner at each others homes.
Ive watched both of the twins grow and become men over the past 15 years, and Im so proud of both of them, said McCrory, who was elected N.C.s governor in 2012. They are like family members to me in many ways.
As the twins grew up, their interests diverged. Lamar was the shorter, more gregarious one who got hooked on music. He became a percussionist in his high school band and now manages a hip-hop artist. Omar was the quieter, more laid-back brother who wore his hair shorter. He grew to be 6-foot-5 4 inches taller than Lamar.
I was the manager or water boy or something of any team we were on as kids, Lamar said with a laugh. And Omar was the star.
The road to Appalachian
In eighth grade, Omar was doing pushups in his room when his chest started to hurt. He told his mother, who co-owns a private behavioral health care facility with her husband. Tyson remembered the death of Loyola Marymount college basketball star Hank Gathers from a heart condition in 1990 and got worried. She took Carter for a battery of heart-related tests in Charlotte. Doctors didnt think there was anything wrong.
Over the next 10 years, Carter would have once-a-year tests on his heart. Just a wellness check, Tyson said. It made me feel better. They never found anything, though.
Carter transferred to Charlotte Christian for high school, where he would play with both future NBA star Stephen Curry and future Duke sharpshooter Seth Curry. Carter became close to the Curry family, sometimes staying overnight at their house. (Stephen, Seth and their father Dell Curry the former Charlotte Hornet all visited Omar in the hospital).
When it was time for college in 2007, Carter had only one Division I scholarship offer at Charleston Southern.
I could always score the ball, but I was overweight, said Carter, who played most of his college career as either an undersized forward or a shooting guard, weighing as little as 215 to as much as 240 pounds. I had a great freshman year at Charleston Southern (leading the team in scoring and rebounding). My sophomore year wasnt good. I thought it was time for me to leave. I thought I could play at a higher level.
Appalachian States coach at the time was Buzz Peterson, who offered Carter a scholarship. Carter had to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules. By the time he got to play, Peterson had left for another job. The new coach in 2010 was Jason Capel, Petersons former assistant, who was well-acquainted with Carter already.
The season he sat out, I got to coach the reserves against the starters a lot of the time in practice, Capel said. A lot of days we won, because we had Omar. Then in his first game in an Appalachian State uniform as a junior, we go to Tulsa and he rolls off 35 points and we win.
Carter averaged 14 points for Capel in two seasons at Appalachian State and received several All-Southern Conference honors. He graduated in 2012 with a sociology degree. But he couldnt get any NBA team interested, so he took an offer to play overseas in Brazil in 2012-13.
Great experience, Carter said. I even learned a little Portuguese. I was planning to go back for another season.
After the Brazilian season ended, Carter worked Capels camp at Appalachian State, went to the Dominican Republic for another summer basketball league and returned home to Charlotte at the beginning of July. He looked forward to playing in the Anthony Morrow Summer Hoops league once again. His team had won the championship in 2012, beating a team that included Morrow (a Charlottean who is now in the NBA) along the way. Carter played in one league game in early July and felt fine in a victory.
Then came July 11. Carter helped his Mom on several errands and took a nap. Hudson picked him up at 7:45 and they headed to the arena for their 9 p.m. tipoff.
I lost his pulse
Kelly Thomas quickly took control of the unsettling scene at Grady Cole Center on July 11. Carter was on the ground, his eyes shut and unable to answer questions. Everyone was concerned but unsure what had happened. Had he had a seizure? Had he just fallen and hit his head?
You either take charge or somebody else is going to take charge for you, Thomas said of her work as a cardiac ICU nurse. So I was shouting out orders. While still holding his wrist, I asked about calling 911 and someone said they had already called. I asked for them to find me an AED machine an automatic external defibrillator and they started yelling for people to find that. And about that time I lost his pulse.
Thomas quickly started CPR, doing chest compressions only. A lady came back with the defibrillator, which was in a nearby office.
I stuck the pads on him and this man whose name I didnt know hooked the cords up for me, Thomas said. I charged it and shocked Omar once. No pulse. So I did compressions again. Still no pulse. More compressions. And maybe a minute or so after that I got a pulse back. He coughed a couple of times. And maybe a minute and a half after that EMS got there.
In the meantime, friends were desperately trying to contact Omars mother and twin brother, who were both at home. They both got calls at roughly 9:40 p.m. Tyson didnt pick hers up the first time she was engrossed in the nighttime TV soap opera Tyler Perrys The Haves and the Have Nots.
But when the phone rang a second time one minute later, she picked it up and heard a frantic voice. A friend at the game told her briefly what had happened. A call came in a few seconds later from the paramedics, wanting to know if Carter was on any medication and what hospital she would prefer.
Tyson picked Carolinas Medical Center. She and Lamar got in the car and sped toward the hospital, which was only about 10 minutes from their home. In their panicky state, however, they forgot where it was. Then they remembered and screamed into the parking lot, beating Omars ambulance by 2 minutes.
Siren blaring, the ambulance pulled in with a long line of cars snaking behind it. The game had been canceled. Many of the basketball players had followed the ambulance to the hospital.
Kelly Thomas was originally a paralegal for four years before going to nursing school. She had found that work a little boring.
This wasnt boring. She had relinquished control of Carters care once the paramedics came, but she also called ahead to CMC to say a likely Code Cool patient was on the way.
Code Cool is used by many of the major hospitals in the country, including both CMC and Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte. It involves cooling a cardiac patients body by pumping cold salt water into their veins. Cooling allows the body to get by with less oxygen and has been shown to reduce brain damage in cardiac patients.
Code Cool has doubled our chances of leaving a cardiac patients brain neurologically intact, said Dr. Alan Heffner, who was on duty that night and treated Carter. Heffner is a critical care specialist at CMC and co-director of the hospitals Code Cool efforts. Historically it was about 25 percent of patients who had little to no brain damage in similar situations. Now its about 50 percent.
When Carter arrived, however, Heffner worried about his condition. He was already in a coma, Heffner said, and that can be a sign of some severe brain injury.
Code Cool was immediately instituted as it is about 100 times a year at CMC one of the busiest Code Cool centers in nation.
We take the patient down from about 98 to 90 degrees, Heffner said. The body will actively resist that. It will fight. It will shiver. So we sedated Omar and gave him 24 hours of treatment, which is standard. We put all these large pads on his torso, his thighs and his upper extremities to pump very cold water around his skin. Its basically like immersing the patient in an ice bath.
In the waiting area, Carters mother was almost out of her mind with worry. She called McCrory and started talking to the governor, but broke down and had to let Lamar update him. Afraid she was going to get the news that Carter had died, she left the hospital on foot, walking about a half-mile in the dark before returning.
Thomas, meanwhile, went home to Gastonia, changed into scrubs and came to the hospital although she was not scheduled to work.
I just wanted to check on Omar, she said.
Lamar and his mother would spend almost all of the next eight days at the hospital, until Omar was discharged. I could have gotten a job there, Lamar Carter said. I knew some of the cafeteria ladies pretty well by the time it was all over.
After 24 hours of Code Cool treatment, the patient is slowly awakened over a 12-hour period. Then comes the great mystery. Even the doctors and nurses dont know if the patient will awaken with brain damage or even awake at all. Or they can be fine.
To everyones relief, Carter was fine. You could tell quickly that Omar was still in there, Dr. Heffner said
Carter who doesnt remember the 48-hour period of his life just before and after his cardiac arrest does recall coming into consciousness.
What I do remember is waking up with a tube down my throat, Carter said. I was thinking, This is crazy. What is all this?
When Carter could talk, his short-term memory was faulty. He kept asking the same three questions over and over to his family.
Am I going to be OK?
Did we already pray today?
Can I play basketball again?
Carter got so many visitors at CMC he received two different aliases, made up at random, to cut down on the overwhelming number of people wanting to see him. First, he was Mr. Japan. Then, he was Jeremiah Williams.
Appalachians Capel was among those who visited early, less than 24 hours after the incident. Carter was still unconscious then.
To be honest, I stayed out of the room quite awhile, gathering myself, before I went in and saw him, Capel said. Going to see a 25-year-old kid who is in a hospital bed in a coma with tubes down his throat fighting for his life I dont think anything can prepare you for that.
McCrory visited the hospital four times over a three-day period and has called about every day since. On his first visit, he was overcome with emotion.
Said Tyson: He was in a chair and he kept saying Youre a miracle, Omar and he started crying. And I said, Dont start that, Pat.
For several days, McCrory slept with his cell phone beside his bed, awaiting news about Carter.
This was a real slap in the face for all of us, but mostly for him, McCrory said. Hes handling it in a very dignified, courageous way. And Im proud of him. But hes scared, and Im scared for him.
On July 19th, Carter was discharged from the hospital.
An uncertain future
As for the questions Omar kept asking in the hospital: It appears he is going to be OK, although he is due for more follow-up appointments and genetic testing. Family members did pray a lot and believe that helped.
But can he play basketball again? No doctor has given him a definite answer, but hes not sure whether he wants to.
I feel good enough to play right now, Omar said. But Id be worried about it. In a way, Im glad I really dont remember much about what happened that night. Im glad when people treat me like nothing happened. That makes me feel better. If they sit around and are just upset, thats hard.
If he doesnt play basketball again, Omar said he might like to work with kids, or coach, or do something in politics.
I still love basketball, Carter said. But this may not be what Im supposed to do if something like this happens. Im preparing myself for all sorts of possibilities now. I feel like this was supposed to happen but I dont know why.
Its been traumatic for him, Tyson said. So hes going to take his time.
There are a few cases of athletes playing sports after heart-related incidents once they get a defibrillator implanted into their bodies. Allan Chaney played college basketball at High Point last year under similar circumstances. Carter may eventually have a defibrillator implanted whether or not he plays pro basketball again.
In the meantime, he and the woman who helped save his life have become Facebook friends. Thomas calls to check on his progress every day.
The fact that Kelly was there that night its mind-boggling, Carter said. I am just so thankful for her.
I wouldnt wish this on anyone, said Dr. Heffner, but Omar literally couldnt have had a better set of circumstances once it happened.
It turned out, said Hudson, Carters friend, that the lady in the pink dress really knew what she was doing.
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