'My husband said, 'Oh my God, he just moved,'' Sammy's mom said. 'The main attending doctor poked his head in and said it's probably just a reflex.'
Craig Berko, 48, and Jennifer Berko, 45, had already lost their young ten-year-old son, Frankie Berko to a seizure more than three years ago when their 16-year-old older son Sammy Berko was pronounced dead. Sammy scaled a rock climbing gym wall on January 7, 2023, rang the bell at the top, and collapsed. Staff helped him down, and a bystander began CPR. Paramedics and doctors performed CPR for two hours. Their efforts were in vain, and Sammy was declared dead.
For his parents, it was "the worst hell." Craig Berko of suburban Houston told TODAY: "Frankie was dead and unfortunately he didn't come back. Now going through this again with his older brother... it was really hard." The doctors were clearing the room so the Berkos could bid Sammy farewell, when something no less than a miracle happened with Sammy. He woke up.
Sammy had gone rock climbing with friends at a nearby gym. The adolescent offered to be the first to scale the wall. He rang the bell at the top, but then he became "completely limp." Before realizing Sammy was unconscious, his friends thought he was joking. When Sammy fell to the ground, someone rushed over and began CPR. The Berkos later discovered he was a radiologist who performed "high-quality CPR" on Sammy. When the ambulance arrived, paramedics took over, and the staff continued when Sammy was taken to the hospital.
The medical team attempted to resuscitate Sammy for two hours before pronouncing him dead and giving the family to say their goodbyes. Then, Craig noticed him move.
"We were just talking to him, telling him how much we love him, how proud we are of all that he is and that he has accomplished and that we were just so sorry that we weren't able to save him. I started praying," Jen recalled. "A couple of times, he moved his chin upwards to try to get a breath. My husband screams, 'Oh my God, he just moved... The main attending doctor poked his head in and said it’s probably just a reflex."
Jen then noticed Sammy's neck turning purple and his carotid artery moving as if he had a heartbeat. The whole team came running at full pace back when the parents raised the alarm. "No time was wasted," Jen said. "They did everything possible to get him stabilized. It was unreal." This moment was even sweeter for the Berkos. Sammy appeared to be getting a second chance at life that their son Frankie never received. "I was a former fireman, and I was the first responder," Craig said. "I was giving Frankie CPR but tragically he never came back."
"Teen Rock Climber Dies, Then Returns to Life: ‘He Willed Himself to Survive’ "— Gray Wolf (@graywolf442) April 23, 2023
When you have an undiagnosed genetic disease that conflicts with your will to live, you can have an episode like this. Welcome back, Sammy Berko!https://t.co/kGB2rSBO3Q
Doctors suspected a connection between Frankie's and Sammy's deaths. They decided to examine remaining tissue from Frankie alongside Sammy's in an attempt to find the link. Meanwhile, Sammy faced numerous challenges. He was in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), fighting for his life. The teen was on a ventilator and had "lost all neurological signs except for his eyes, which remained... reactive." Again, the Berkos found themselves at their son's bedside, pleading for his life. "I whispered in his ear. I said, 'Maybe people think that you can’t hear me right now, but I know you. I don't believe that for one second because you've already proved them wrong by coming back to life downstairs in the ER — and I know you’re going to do it again,'" Jen shared.
The family played music next to his ear. Sammy, who was on dialysis, loves music and plays guitar, piano and drums. Then Sammy’s eyes moved. "It seemed like he was reacting to my wife's voice... he wanted to be awake so badly," Craig added. To be sure, the doctor asked Sammy questions and instructed him to blink in response. "He started responding," Craig explained. "The attending doctor was like, 'This is unbelievable.'"
Although he experienced strokes in his brain and spinal cord which caused paralysis from the waist down and memory issues, he continued improving gradually in the PICU. Jen, Frankie and Sammy were discovered to have a rare genetic condition known as catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT). Sammy underwent a procedure called a sympathectomy and even shared, "I'm on both a calcium channel blocker and a beta receptor blocker and that helps block the adrenaline rush to the heart and regulates the heart rhythm. So you can help prevent an event."
One of the doctors involved in Sammy's care, Dr. Stacey Hall explained, "He's doing amazing. For any prolonged CPR, we are generally anticipating that they have a catastrophic global anoxic brain injury. It's highly unusual he's doing as well as he is. He was super highly motivated. He has an amazing attitude, especially for a teenager that went through this."
"It's been insane to see all the progress that I've made. It's quite a lifestyle change at least to be in the wheelchair and monitoring my heart," said Sammy. "You can't take life for granted," Craig chimed in. "(With Frankie), we're having a good day and all of a sudden, boom, he's gone. Life is really short and fragile." Sammy has been adjusting well to the changes. His story does act as a great reminder to spend time with your loved ones.