24-Year-Old Austin Runner Collapses on Track After Cardiac Arrest: ‘No Definitive Answer About What Happened’ (Exclusive)

“It was nothing different than what I would do on a typical Saturday morning," personal trainer and nutrition coach Dominic Fusco tells PEOPLE of the morning he suffered the incident

Dominic Fusco went to the Austin High School track with five friends in early August to record their mile times. It was a common challenge for the 24-year-old runner and his crew.

The night before, Fusco, a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach with 53K Instagram followers, followed his usual prep routine, hydrating with water and electrolytes.

He got up early the next day to beat the heat. "It was nothing different than what I would do on a typical Saturday morning," Fusco, who moved to Austin at the end of June, says. "I was up and I was moving and I was feeling good."

Despite having run two marathons, an ultra-marathon, crushed plenty of hard track workouts and conquered long runs, the former Dickinson College football player was a bit nervous about trying to run a super fast mile.

Fusco crossed the finish line in 5:15. After the run, his friends told him, he walked to the end of the track and started panting. He struggled to bring his heart rate down and take in enough air. His mouth began foaming, his body went purple and he collapsed with no pulse.

Luckily a firefighter happened to be at the track. He rushed over and helped one of Fusco’s friends perform CPR while the others called 911. 

Related: Damar Hamlin on His Recovery From Cardiac Arrest: 'Physically, I'm Getting Stronger' (Exclusive)

‘I couldn’t breathe on my own’

Fusco, co-founder of health and wellness platform Upspace, was rushed to the ICU at Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas, where he was placed on a ventilator. The doctors tried bringing him off the ventilator a few times, but he couldn't breathe on his own. They said he had suffered cardiac arrest.

Fusco's mom immediately flew in from his hometown of Exton, Pennsylvania. She later told him that she walked into the hospital room, put her hands on her son and said, “Let me see those beautiful green eyes.” In that moment, Fusco apparently opened his eyes and let out a big sigh after hours of being unconscious.

Then, he closed his eyes again and lay still.

He came off the ventilator the next day and soon woke up. “It was very blurry when I first came to, but I just remember being so emotional I couldn’t stop crying,” he says. Soon he was able to get up by himself and walk. He says doctors told him that it’s a miracle he didn’t suffer any brain damage.

‘I have no history of heart problems’ 

Fusco was then transferred to a hospital that specialized in cardiology and electrophysiology. Over the next few days, specialists searched for answers as to why this cardiac event happened. But test after test, nothing came back abnormal, according to Fusco.

“It's frustrating, because they still haven't given me a definitive answer as to why this happened,” he says. “I haven't been given an official diagnosis. They have all these things that it could be. I was in the hospital for over a week, and it was a lot of just waiting around, and just hoping and praying that we get some answers.” 

Fusco says doctors eventually came to the conclusion that he has a slightly enlarged heart, which might not pump blood as efficiently as it should. Doctors also told him there’s also the possibility he has Long QT syndrome — a heart rhythm disorder that can potentially cause fast, chaotic heartbeats.

To prevent something similar from happening again, Fusco had a defibrillator placed in his side. While the decision was difficult, he says the implant will give him and his family peace of mind.

But he is still stunned by the overall experience: "I had cardiac arrest," Fusco said with disbelief on his Pure Ambition podcast. "I have no history of heart problems. I like to think of myself as pretty darn healthy. I exercise every freaking day. I’m very particular about what I put into my body and basically I’m trying to optimize my health.”

Related: LeBron James’ Son Bronny Suffered Cardiac Arrest at 18 — What Young Athletes Should Know About Heart Health

Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in young athletes

According to the National Institutes of Health sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in young athletes. The Sports Institute says about 1 or 2 in every 100,000 young athletes experience a sudden cardiac arrest each year, with males being at greater risk than females, and African American athletes being at greater risk than their white counterparts.

In the days following the incident, Fusco found himself up all night researching why this happens happening to young, healthy athletes like himself. In July Bronny James, son of NBA star LeBron James, suffered from cardiac arrest. Professional football player Damar Hamlin also experienced a cardiac event in January.

Since Fusco has posted his story on social media, he's had many people reach out with similar stories. “I’ve been going down the rabbit hole of people who’ve suffered similar events, especially younger athletes,” he says.

“This is life-threatening. You never know, you could have something pre-existing. Maybe I could have had something genetic that I didn’t know about. I'm not playing college athletics anymore but I think there should be more readily available tests to see if you’re at risk for any pre-existing conditions.”

<p>Courtesy of Dominic Fusco</p> Dominic Fusco has been a longtime runner.

Courtesy of Dominic Fusco

Dominic Fusco has been a longtime runner.

‘It was a wake-up call’

While Fusco started creating fitness and health content on social media to feed his own curiosity and share light in a world that he felt could sometimes be "full of darkness," his platforms evolved as a way to inspire and empower people to become the healthiest, happiest, most fulfilled versions of themselves.

“I want this to be a reminder to everybody to prioritize your health — it was a wake-up call for me,” he says. “Be conscious of the workouts you decide to do and always be conscious of having people around you. I think every single person should learn CPR because it saved my life and could save other people’s lives.”

“This is a part of my story and there’s a reason why it happened," he says. “I get chills when I look back at pictures of me in the ICU — but they remind me to make the most of every day.”  

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