Part II: “Aborted Sudden Death”
In Part 1 of our three-part series, we narrated how Alex– a sudden cardiac arrest survivor, found himself in hospital after last remembering lying down for the evening in his own house two days earlier. Here in Part 2 of the series, we go on the hospital journey with Alex and how his doctors said he was lucky to survive an “aborted sudden death.”
As soon as Alex’s 12-year-old daughter alerted her mother that her dad was not responsive and “breathing funny,” a series of well-orchestrated events took place. His wife rushed to him and found that he was unconscious and wasn’t responding when she tried to wake him. She told her daughter to “Go get the neighbors” and then dialed 911. Three neighbors who had been talking outside raced into the house and started administering CPR, while the EMS dispatcher sent an ambulance and offered life-saving CPR guidance. Ultimately EMS responders from the fire and police departments were able to use a defibrillator to bring back his normal heart rhythm.
While Alex’s treatment continued in the intensive care unit at Stanford University Hospital, his wife nervously waited for news. She expected the worst.
“And so when they actually did come back and she sort of prepared herself and the two doctors said, ‘Okay, well here’s what we’re doing for him’. That was the first that she knew that I was still alive,” shares Alex.
“While the news offered some relief, the physicians warned that ‘There’s no guarantee he will ever wake up and there’s no guarantee if he does wake up what state he’s going to be intact neurologically. We just don’t know.’ And the protocol is that they cool you down for 24 hours. They bring your body temperature down to 91 degrees Fahrenheit and then bring it back up to protect you from any blood clots releasing or anything like that.”
Two days later, when he regained full consciousness, Alex woke up, intubated with a breathing tube and strapped down to the bed as a precaution so that he wouldn’t be able to move his hands. “I was actually strapped down from my arms because if I woke up and went for the tube and tried to pull it out, the balloon at the end of the tube would have ripped through my vocal cords,” Alex said of the experience.
After another day Alex was able to stay awake long enough that it was safe to remove the breathing tube., “They then unstrapped me and they sat me up. I’m just kind of waiting for what’s next. They give me a glass of water, I drank it and I’m just sitting there because you know, for 24 hours…I was just used to being passive. I’ve got to wait for them – to see what’s going to happen next. So I’m just sitting there not realizing everybody’s waiting for me… my wife and my sisters are there at this point and they’re trying to figure out what state I’m in. Does he have slurred speech? Does he know who we are? All these things are going through their minds. And I’m just sitting there nonchalantly. This nurse calmly says to me, ‘So how do you feel?’ And I’m thinking, you know, ok, I’m in the ICU of Stanford Hospital for cardiac care. I’ve just been brought here, all this kind of stuff going on. And I thought this is kind of ridiculous, so I said, ‘Well, my throat hurts,’ thinking that I was making a joke. And my wife just about bear hugged me. She was so relieved after three days to know I was still ‘in there.’”
It’s a moment of levity after days filled with tension and fear of the unknown. Not one who seeks attention, Alex failed to realize at that moment what all the fuss was about and the resulting mindset of his wife and family.
A few days after regaining full consciousness and complete coordination, Alex walked up and down the hospital to exercise. At first, his muscles ached but they soon firmed and just six weeks after arriving the ICU of Stanford Hospital for cardiac care, Alex flew off to Japan for a business meeting.
Asked about the lasting physical impact of his SCA and the current state of his health, Alex joked that he is now a part of the Internet of Things. “I have to push a button every week so my (heart) data gets downloaded and sent to my doctor. And if I let it go a couple of weeks and forgotten about it, they’ll actually call me up and say, ‘Could you push your button?’ I’m being monitored from afar.”
Alex concisely compares cardiac arrest with scrambling electrical signals versus a heart attack he likened to a plumbing problem. The defibrillation therapy was similar to rebooting a phone or restarting a computer to get it perfectly functional again. “Rebooting is a pretty substantial thing, but it clears up a lot of problems and gets things back on track for your phone. Well, same thing with an AED. The only thing is if you don’t have one, then you can’t do it.”
Alex knows, firsthand, how important AEDs can be.
Aside from the fact that an AED saved Alex’s life, many similarities exist between Alex’s rescue and losing his father when Alex was just 21.
His father passed away at 43 of a heart issue. Alex was 46 when he suffered sudden cardiac arrest. His father died on Thanksgiving; Alex experienced cardiac arrest a day before Easter. Alex’s sister was 12 when their father collapsed, and she called out to his mother and a group of women – all nurses — for help. Alex’s daughter was 12 when she found him unconscious on his couch, and she too went out in search of help to her mother and neighbors.
While the parallels between Alex’s near-death experience and losing his father are remarkable, the main difference is that Alex received early defibrillation. “And so I spent most of my life knowing what the alternative ending to the story would be,” he said.
Alex is lucky to be alive, and he is thankful for the way things turned out. “There are two lines in my hospital record from Stanford that I really love,” he said.
A senior cardiologist wrote that Alex’s case was an “interesting and very fortunate case of aborted sudden death.” He also wrote ,“He is lucky to be alive.”
Alex appreciates what that means. “I’m very fortunate…I feel like I was given a gift.” He is now determined to share his story with whoever cares to listen, with the hope that “it will do some good in whatever ways it can.”
Read Part 3 of Alex’s story for learning lessons from his first-hand experience with SCA.
Note: while this account and all quotes used in this series are real, the victim’s name and the name of all other parties involved have been changed to protect the privacy of the victim and his family.