In this blog post, guest blogger John McCaig shares his story of surviving a sudden cardiac arrest. With his second chance at life, John now works to spread awareness about this condition, which affects more than 200,000 Americans a year, and advocates for CPR training and availability of portable defibrillators.
Cardiac arrest is sudden and almost always fatal unless intervention takes place within the first four minutes or so. Cardiac arrest is widely misunderstood, but treatable if knowledge is available and the correct actions are taken in those first crucial moments.
Most people term any heart disease occurrence as a “heart attack.” But let’s clear that up right away. There are two types of heart problems that can be fatal. The most common is when a patient experiences chest pain, radiating pain down the arm, etc., and is transported to the hospital (or often even drives themselves) and may spend time recovering with bypass surgery for blocked arteries. This can best be described as a “plumbing problem,” invariably the result of blocked arteries to the heart caused by various factors such as smoking, high cholesterol, etc. Although I did not have a heart attack at the time, I did have triple cardiac bypass surgery some years ago.
The less common heart problem can be termed an “electrical problem.” For no apparent reason, the heart’s electrical impulses go awry and ventricular fibrillation (a twitching of the heart muscle) occurs. There is no warning sign; blood flow to the brain stops immediately as the heart is no longer pumping, and brain damage begins quickly. After a few minutes, brain death occurs. Intervention by external cardiac massage or CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) can keep the blood circulating and the patient alive until a defibrillator can restore normal heart rhythm.
This is what happened to me. On a bright sunny Sunday morning I was gardening in our front yard and walked toward our neighbor’s house to talk. That is the last thing I remember for one full week. The rest of this story was relayed to me by my wife and others. Our neighbor thought I had tripped or stepped in a hole, because one minute I was walking toward her and the next I was face down on the ground. She yelled for her husband, who luckily had previously taken a CPR course. Other neighbors arrived as they heard the commotion, as did my cardiologist who lived around the corner. Amongst all of them, they performed CPR for almost 20 minutes until the ambulance arrived. The EMS responders used the defibrillator four times, declared me basically dead, and began transport to the hospital. Thankfully, my doctor climbed into the ambulance and insisted they continue with the defibrillator during transport, and after two more “shocks” my heart surprisingly regained normal rhythm.
After stabilization at our local hospital, I was transported to the closest cardiac center, where I had an implantable cardiac device surgically placed in my chest wall. This device is about 2 x 2 inches and about ¾ inch thick. It acts as a pacemaker, but, more importantly, should another cardiac arrest occur, it is my own “built in” defibrillator and would shock my heart back to rhythm.
Now, more than five years later, I have had no further cardiac problems and live a full and active life, simply making sure I watch my diet somewhat and exercise regularly. My doctors said the people who attended to me during those first 20 minutes saved my life. I was only the third person in 20 years who had suffered a cardiac arrest outside of the local hospital itself who had walked out on their own without any brain damage.
So what lessons can be learned from my experience?
First, EVERYONE should know how to perform external cardiac massage/CPR. You never know when you will come across someone like me – unexpectedly flat out on the ground and in terminal distress. It could be a member of your family or a perfect stranger, young or old, in perfect health or sick – cardiac arrest picks no favorites and cannot be predicted. There are many courses available through local health authorities, such as the American Red Cross, the American Heart Association and most local emergency service providers, so there are no excuses not to learn.
Secondly, portable defibrillators positioned in strategic spots around your town or city (sporting arenas, swimming pools, libraries, shopping centers, etc.) are invaluable in providing timely treatment. Support programs to purchase and install them – they may save YOUR life one day.
I was fortunate – to have a wife and family who were so supportive, to have neighbors who happened to be there and knew what to do, to have doctors who acted quickly and compassionately to help me recover, and to know there were researchers who developed such things as the implantable cardiac device. When one has such a brush with death, your perspective on living changes. Life is precious – become involved.
John McCaig is a former pharmaceutical executive who is retired and lives with his wife, Gayle, in Huntsville, Ontario. He still enjoys golf and travel, although age-related “aches and pains” have meant giving up downhill skiing.
Thank you, John, for sharing your compelling story with our readers.
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