By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Kyleigh Niziak is only 17, but she has a lot to be thankful for.
Last month, the Salem High School senior’s heart suddenly stopped after she began feeling ill during a dance class. She collapsed in her bedroom, losing consciousness.
If not for the fast work of a seven-member Salem Fire Department rescue team, Kyleigh might not have survived, according to her mother, Kimberly Niziak.
“They are, and always will be, our saviors,” the mother said. “They truly saved my daughter’s life.”
Last night, Kyleigh and her family were there to thank the men who saved her life at a selectmen’s meeting. Selectmen wanted to honor them as well, fire Chief Kevin Breen said.
Kyleigh, who said she doesn’t remember the incident, recently met the crew for the time since that scary episode Feb. 7. She was looking forward to the chance to thank them.
“They are awesome guys and I’m really thankful they saved my life,” Kyleigh said.
She has been diagnosed with a rare congenital heart defect, Wolff-Parkinson-White-Syndrome. It caused her heart rate to soar from about 60 beats per minute to more than 310 a minute, causing ventricular fibrillation, her mother said.
That’s when the heart rate becomes so rapid, no blood is pumped through or by the heart — depriving the body of oxygen and possibly leading to death.
Kyleigh had experienced heart palpitations in the past, but it was diagnosed as an anxiety disorder, Kimberly Niziak said.
When Kyleigh began having trouble that night, her mother became concerned. She decided to check on her daughter one last time before she went to sleep that night.
She’s glad she did.
When Kimberly Niziak found her daughter collapsed on the bed, she quickly called 911 and tried cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The rescue team arrived four minutes later, but had difficulty reviving the teenage girl.
But they did.
“They literally started her heart again and they stayed with us all the way to the hospital,” the grateful mother said. “It was amazing.”
Kyleigh was rushed to Holy Family Hospital in Methuen and later transferred to Children’s Hospital in Boston, where it took a week before doctors reached a diagnosis.
Kimberly and her husband, Todd, were afraid the eldest of their three daughters suffered heart and brain damage. But testing revealed she recovered 100 percent, Kimberly said.
“She came out clear,” Kimberly said. “It was truly a miracle.”
But the teenager required a five-hour operation, led by Dr. Doug Mah, to correct the problem with her heart, Kimberly said. There is still a 10 percent chance she could experience the same trouble again in the next year, the mother said.
If Kyleigh gets through the next 12 months without a problem, she’s expected to be OK, Kimberly said.
Kyleigh’s maternal grandmother was diagnosed with the same condition, but had never had any problems. The Niziaks’ two other daughters — Taylor, 14, and Brenna, 12, — have been tested as well. Brenna has been cleared, but Taylor is being monitored for three weeks, Kimberly said.
Kyleigh, who is planning to become a nurse, recently returned to her classes at Salem High, but on a limited basis. She said she expects to graduate in June as scheduled.
In the meantime, she still plans to perform a dance routine at a Boston Celtics game later this month.
Kyleigh also plans to take an emergency medical training course, so like the Salem firefighters, she, too, can help someone in need.
Breen said he was proud of his crew.
“They certainly saved her life,” he said.
The crew included Lt. Craig Lemire, firefighter/paramedic Patrick Swanson, firefighter Samuel Lutner, Lt. Lawrence Best, firefighter Ryan Gott, firefighter/paramedic Kennett Colby and firefighter/paramedic Michael Galipeau.