BEIRUT: Remy Rebeiz, the 20-year-old founder of the Beirut Football Club and dedicated member of the American University of Beirut varsity soccer team, was the picture of health when his heart suddenly stopped on March 27, 2013.
Rebeiz had just left the gym and was heading to a family dinner at the Beirut Souks when he collapsed in his uncle’s arms.
“We lost him in a second,” his bereaved father, John Rebeiz, says.
Remy died due to an undiagnosed genetic heart condition known as Long QT Syndrome. The gene mutation, which was only discovered in 1991, the year before Remy’s birth, can cause cardiac arrest suddenly and without warning.
“It is a silent killer,” says Sylvia Rebeiz, Remy’s mother. “Ever since he was 6 years old, he was into competitive sports. He never complained about anything; he never said he was dizzy, and he did not have any symptoms whatsoever.”
With the launch of the Remy Rebeiz Young Heart Foundation earlier this month, Remy’s family and friends hope to prevent tragedies of a similar nature. The Foundation’s ultimate goal is to make automated external defibrillators compulsory in all public and private institutions, and to provide training on how to use them to as many people as possible, starting with students. It also aims to raise awareness about testing that could diagnose heart conditions in young people, and to lobby insurance companies and the relevant ministries to see that the costs of such tests are covered.
Remy’s family and doctors say he could have been saved had an AED been present. The small devices, which cost around $1,500 each, deliver an electric shock to the stopped heart and are easy to use.
Unlike heart attacks, which are caused by an arterial blockage, sudden cardiac arrest must be treated within five to seven minutes in order to save the person’s life.
According to John, AUB has already saved two students who went into cardiac arrest at the gym, including a young man named Hussein, a friend of Remy’s sister, who also attended Remy’s funeral.
“Both Hussein and Remy had the same diagnosis. Hussein is an example of a person who survived, and my son is an example of a person who died,” John says. “What was the difference? An AED.”
“You cannot wait for the paramedics to arrive,” he continued. “An ambulance in Beirut will definitely take 15-20 minutes to arrive. By that time, it is too late.”
According to Dr. Mazen al-Sayyed, a board member of the foundation, only a small fraction of patients brought to the AUB Medical Center emergency room suffering from sudden cardiac arrest survive, and most of those who do suffer some brain damage.
“We want to reach a time when a regular person with no previous medical knowledge can intervene and save a life while waiting for the ambulance,” John says. The Foundation has already started cooperating with the Red Cross, which in turn, is planning to put an AED in every ambulance.
The Foundation will host its first awareness and training session at AUB and International College, where Remy went to school. The Rebeiz family is planning on taking their campaign to other schools.
“We want to be able to give a certificate that this or that educational institution is a ‘Safe Campus,’ and this certificate should be a [source] of pride,” John says.
When Remy’s parents visited their daughter in Washington D.C. last September, they found AEDs were everywhere, like fire extinguishers.
“It should be required to place AEDs in all educational institutions, malls, airports, playgrounds or any crowded places,” Sylvia insists.
“In a place like Beirut Souks, in Downtown, where thousands of dollars have been spent on building luxurious shops and restaurants, the least expected is to have one AED present in each parking [lot],” her husband adds. “If that were the case, Remy would be with us right now.”
Above all, John and Sylvia Rebeiz want to spread the message that even young, active people who appear perfectly healthy can suffer from unseen conditions that can claim their lives in a moment.
“The social myth that young people only die from an overdose or a car accident should be broken as it is totally untrue,” John says. “Remy never smoked, never drank alcohol or took drugs. He had a very healthy diet. He cared very much about his fitness because he [took] his role as a football player very seriously.”
“We are trying to make something good out of the tragedy we’ve gone through,” John adds.
“Our aim is to help other families that may have children who are potentially at risk of suffering from the same conditions.”