Kemoy Campbell: Olympian and Sudden Cardiac Arrest Survivor
Kemoy Campbell, a Jamaican distance runner and Olympian, went into Sudden Cardiac Arrest while pacing the men’s 3000-meter race at the 2019 NYRR Millrose Games. Around the 1000-meter mark, he stepped off the track, collapsed suddenly, and lost consciousness. His heart had stopped.
Meggie Sullivan was watching the race from the balcony when she saw Kemoy fall. After just a moment of confusion, she quickly realized that Kemoy was not moving or breathing. Meggie leapt from her seat, ran down the stairs, and responded to the emergency. Although many years had passed since she was last trained in CPR, she took action and catalyzed a response that saved his life.
In this interview, we hear from three people involved in the emergency. Meggie describes her experience as a responder, Victoria reflects on witnessing this event, and Kemoy shares his perspective as a Sudden Cardiac Arrest survivor.
Kemoy: A Survivor
Kemoy Campbell, a Jamaican distance runner and Olympian, went into cardiac arrest while pacing the men’s 3000-meter race at the 2019 NYRR Millrose Games. Around the 1000-meter mark, he stepped off the track, collapsed suddenly, and lost consciousness. We had the pleasure of meeting Kemoy to discuss his thoughts about CPR training, AED awareness, and retiring from running. See below for his full interview.
Meggie: A Responder
Meggie was sitting in the balcony, spectating the 2019 NYRR Millrose Games, when Kemoy Campbell collapsed on the track beneath her. She ran down the stairs, entered the track, and began performing CPR. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Meggie to hear her story and discuss what empowered her to respond to the emergency.
Victoria: An Observer
Seated in the balcony at the 2019 NYRR Millrose Games, Victoria was elevated above the track and had a direct view of Kemoy when he went into Sudden Cardiac Arrest. In this interview, Victoria reflects on the event – seeing him collapse, the emergency response, and how witnessing a Sudden Cardiac Arrest has inspired her in helping others.
Kemoy’s Full Interview:
Anna Harleen: Kemoy, thank you for taking the time to meet with me today and share your story as a sudden cardiac arrest survivor. You’ve recently retired from running and are busy working on other projects. I’d love to hear more about what you’re doing currently.
Kemoy Campbell: Right now, I’ve been just thinking about how I can help people be more aware of heart disease. Primarily, I’ve been trying to get people to learn CPR. But I’m also figuring out ways that I can get myself out there and create awareness. I’ve reached out to the American Heart Association and have gotten a response from them. That’s nothing concrete yet, but I’m hoping that, by working with AHA, I can learn CPR well enough to where I can start teaching some classes. I think that would be a great way to educate. I’ve also been coaching running part-time, so yeah, I’m staying busy.
AH: That’s great. If you become a CPR instructor then you can directly teach people the skills that were so important in saving your life.
KC: Exactly. And that’s one of the reasons why I want to do it. Because, at the end of the day, CPR saved my life and it could possibly save someone else’s.
AH: Absolutely. Is it ever challenging to balance your own recovery from cardiac arrest with your desire to be involved in education and awareness?
KC: It isn’t. I’m really motivated to do this work because of what happened. That’s where my drive to help people comes from, to not be in the same situation. Had I known about these heart conditions, I probably wouldn’t have been in that situation. Before the cardiac arrest happened, I was having a difficult time breathing in practice and I thought I had some kind of exercise induced asthma or something. I didn’t know what was going on. So if I can tell people, “Hey, these are the possible symptoms of some kind of underlying heart condition or heart disease,” then that could help people get screened earlier. Then they don’t end up in the same situation that happened to me.
AH: That’s a really important message. Especially for the running world. Being a runner myself, sometimes we think we are invincible.
KC: Oh yeah, we think it’ll never happen to us.
AH: What advice would you give to someone who witnesses a cardiac arrest and could be a responder? What would you want them to know?
KC: The first thing you want to do is imagine if it was you. Because the minute you put yourself in that position, you’re more likely to help the person on the ground. You’re not thinking, “Well someone else is going to help.” That’s what always happens. People are always thinking someone else is going to help. But by taking the first step, by jumping in and saying, “Hey, this person is on the ground, not moving, and needs help,” you might have saved that person’s life. The bystander effect is a real thing. Don’t just stand there frozen while a person is on the ground dying. Take the first step.. That’s what Meggie did. Everybody else was looking around and didn’t know what was going on. Someone had to start the whole process. Then other people were able to come in and support.
AH: That is important and powerful to hear. We can’t wait for others to respond, it’s critical to take the first step. What thoughts do you have on the role of AEDs in cardiac emergencies? What would you like to see?
KC: In my situation, apparently there wasn’t an AED right there when I was on the ground. So if it wasn’t for the CPR before the AED came, I probably wouldn’t be alive. It’s really important to have AEDs be more accessible. Especially in places like cities where more incidents happen. The outcomes are not always positive because there is no availability of defibrillators. If AEDs were more available, it would be beneficial to a lot of people and save a lot of lives.
Also, as you guys probably know with AEDs, some of them can be pretty difficult to use. So making them easier to use. I would like to see AEDs tell you what to do, every step that you should take. Then a normal person who is not trained can just listen to the instructions and apply the shock needed to save a person’s life.
AH: Have you seen the video of your collapse?
KC: I have seen the video. It took me a year to see it. I actually saw the video the day before I went to the Millrose Games this year because they brought me back to New York to do this small documentary on what happened. So I saw the video.
AH: I can imagine it is a difficult video to see.
KC: It is a difficult video. I think that the worst part of it was for my fiance. She was there when the whole thing happened. For her, it was very scary and obviously I was out, so I didn’t know what was going on. She saw it all and later told me about everything that happened, how long it took to do certain things, who started certain things. The video was more traumatizing for her than it was for me. Also, as we said, us athletes can think we are invincible. So, it was difficult seeing myself in that position. That’s why it’s my calling to go out and educate people. People need to know about what’s happening in their bodies.
The only thing I remember from that day was being on the bus, heading to the track in the morning, and talking with my friend. Everything after that, I don’t remember.
AH: What are your thoughts on how cardiac arrest affects the people around you or your loved ones?
KC: That’s another reason why I want to go ahead and educate people. The person that it affects most is not you. You had a cardiac arrest, yes. There is a chance it could happen again, yes. But looking at the people around you is more heartbreaking than anything else you can face. I remember waking up in the hospital and seeing my brothers. All I remember was seeing their faces. They were happy to see me awake, but at the same time, they were super worried. They were looking pale, eyes wide and watery. And I thought, “Oh I’ve never really seen them like this.” And I don’t think I ever want to see them like that again because it’s not pleasant, knowing that you have someone scared half-to-death because of what happened to you. So I think it has a major impact on your family members and your loved ones.
AH: Absolutely, I can imagine. Changing gears, you say that you’re coaching some? How do you like coaching?
KC: I’m very interested in coaching and I’ve gotten to like it even more since I started. Athletes really appreciate what you do for them. They have this drive to succeed, and if you can help them, they have a deep appreciation for that. I didn’t get a chance to live out my whole career the way I wanted. So, if I can help someone to accomplish the goals that they’ve set, that would make me happy. That would make me very happy.
AH: You clearly have a lot of love for the sport and that’s a gift that you can share. Even just hearing you talk about it makes me smile. Are you running at all right now?
KC: When I was in the hospital, that was the main thing that I was asking the doctors about. I do remember this. I’d ask, can I compete, can I go back to competing? And their answer was “wait and see”. When I got back to Charlotte, I went on a run with my teammates. The run was fine, I did four miles, but when I went back home my chest hurt. I saw my cardiologist and that’s when they told me, “We think you should call your career. We don’t know if the next time it happens you’re going to wake up.” And for me, that was when I had to retire. I remember driving home and it didn’t hit me until I got back because I used to jump in my car every morning at nine o’clock for practice. So I was literally sitting in the car, right in my driveway, and thinking, “I’m not going to be able to do this ever again.” That was very emotional for me. After I stopped running for a while, I went back to the cardiologist, they told me, “This is what we want you to do. You can run 30 minutes max and your heart rate can’t go past 164.” So I got to keep a little bit, but nothing too competitive. I think my cause is educating people. And I’m connecting with the right people now, it seems. People who know what I’m trying to do. I think that’s beneficial in some ways, for sure.
AH: Kemoy, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. It’s really been a pleasure.