Shock at the Beach
june 27th was a typical summer day in Florida — hot, humid, with a slight sea breeze. I was up early and had already done some house chores when I decided I needed a few things from the hardware store. The store allows pets, and our puppy Tiago is as social as they come so I took him with me.
My wife, Pam, was going about her morning routine — coffee, news, house-straightening — before going to her exercise class a little later. I grabbed a bagel for breakfast, on my way back from the store. Eating on our patio, I caught up with a few people on Facebook and texted a few others.
I had been in an exercise funk for a little while. I couldn’t get motivated to do anything but run, and I wasn’t doing that very often because it hurt my back. Before we moved to Jacksonville, in the summer of 2013, I weighed 220 pounds. That has been my weight pretty much my whole adult life. After a few stressful jobs, I was a meager 200.
Because of my lack of routine, my motto was “just keep moving.” I thought kicking the soccer ball on the beach with my friend Luis would be much more fun than running in this heat. I connected with him and planned to meet at his condo in Jacksonville Beach. I don’t typically pack a bag because we live so close to the beach. But it was almost 10 a.m., a bit later than I like to go, so I packed a cooler backpack with towel, water, my phone, wallet and keys and hopped on my bike.
I met Luis, and we walked to water’s edge and started passing the ball back and forth. We hadn’t known each other long, but we both loved soccer and joked of joining an Over 30 recreational team and getting back into shape. We laughingly agreed we better make it Over 40 instead. We picked up the pace of passing, and with that, we made more mistakes with the ball, and I was working up a decent sweat. I lead Luis with a terrible pass down the beach. I turned my back to the water and started to rest my hands on my knees … and just like that, I collapsed.
The next thing I remember was light — so blinding I had to squint. Then I heard a voice, “We have a pulse … oh, wait … we don’t have a pulse.”
‘What are they talking about? Are they talking about me?’ Then BA-BOOM! A powerful surge struck my body. The force burned through my arms to the tips of my fingers and caused my knees to violently curl to my chest. My hands felt like they were glued to a stovetop, searing with heat. I squeezed my fingers rapidly, but the pain continued. My teeth ground viciously as the light pierced my eyes. I thought whatever was stuck to me was causing that pain, so I sat up and abruptly tried to take off whatever was on my chest. Later, I would realize this was the automated external defibrillator (AED) that shocked my heart back into rhythm. Amidst the chaos I heard the voice of a woman screaming: “JESUS … SAAAVE THIIIS MAAAAN! SAVE THIS MAN’S LIFE! PLEASE GOD, SAVE HIM.”
As the adrenaline subsided, a member of the Jacksonville Beach Volunteer Lifesaving Corps tried to calm me: “Just relax and breathe, sir.” I took in the deepest, purest, most exhilarating breath I’ve ever felt and began to comprehend where I was and what had just happened: I just lived through sudden cardiac arrest! As they loaded me onto the back of the lifeguard truck, they asked my name, who I was with and what I was doing. No more than a few minutes after two AED shocks, I was able to answer questions with reasonable coherency.
The lifeguards rushed me off the sand to the ambulance that pulled up seamlessly as we got to the parking lot. EMS took me to the emergency room where I was stabilized. Throughout all that, I was still trying to figure out how it had happened. In every stage of the process, medical professionals spoke under their breath about my case. From lifeguards to surgeons, all were amazed by the fact I was even alive. Physicians commonly worry about “aftershocks” in the wake of sudden cardiac arrest. With the exception of one minor blip of a faster-than- normal heart rate, I experienced no other cardiac abnormalities throughout my time in the ER.
By 4 p.m., just six hours later, I was in surgery at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville. I was there for five nights of surgeries, tests and procedures including X-rays, an MRI, a heart biopsy and an ICD implant. First was the cardiac catheterization that revealed no blockage in my arteries at all. My blood pressure was naturally a bit lower than 120/80. While I was being wheeled back from surgery, a team of five or six cardiologists appeared in my room. They stood before my wife, mother and mother-in-law in awe: “On a scale of 1 to 10, his luck was a 30 today,” said Dr. Norman Patton, head of cardiology at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville.
The next day my echocardiogram and MRI showed scarring on 20 percent of my heart. My ejection fraction (EF) — the percentage of blood that is pumped out with each heartbeat — scored a 25. A normal EF in a person at rest is between 55 and 70 percent. At that point, they were not sure if that low EF was from the AED shocks or a pre-existing heart condition.
A heart biopsy was done to test the scarred heart tissue. The ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) was recommended because I was considered extremely high risk for another cardiac arrest incident.
I am amazed by my ICD. It monitors and regulates the rhythms of my heart 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I now and forever will live with a pocket watch-sized monitor positioned below my left pectoral muscle.
From that device a ‘lead’ wire is positioned strategically within the walls of my heart. The ICD links through the internet to doctors at the hospital. My heart rhythms are uploaded daily and monitored for any abnormalities.
I feel lucky and blessed. I have talked to a few survivors, and in relative terms, the speed of my recovery has been remarkable. I was weaned off arrhythmia medications but will forever take beta-blockers and a low dose of preventative medications. I was eventually diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
I have always told myself that things happen for a reason, but after this incident, I truly believe it. There were just too many “coincidences” that confirm for me that this event was a combination of divine intervention and flawless medical execution. Some of these include:
Running late to the beach: When recalling the chain of events that occurred that day, I like to think that Tiago was the first first responder in the chain of survival. He’s a puppy, but we say he’s “an old soul” because he acts as though he’s been here before. If he hadn’t run me around the hardware store that morning — doubling back again and again, making me drop my list and forget why I was in each aisle, I would have been out of there much earlier. If I had been out of there earlier, I would have gotten to the beach earlier than 10 a.m., before the lifeguards came on duty.
Carrying a full bag: As mentioned, I never take much to the beach. Because I was bringing a soccer ball, I needed a bag and felt compelled to fill that bag with everything including my wallet and the cellphone Luis used to call my wife.
Unlocked cell phone: My phone usually locks itself after five to 10 minutes, but it had gone unused for much longer than that when Luis picked it up. He was able to call my wife directly without knowing the lock code.
Rude classmate: As Pam was in the relaxation/ meditation portion of her class, she heard a cellphone ringing. ‘Who leaves their ringer on during THIS class?’ she thought. After a ring or two more, she realized it was her phone. She rarely brought her phone into classes, let alone leaves the ringer on.
Timely training: Lifeguard Joe Walcutt shared his perspective from the top of the lifeguard tower with me, “Everything was just clicking that morning,” he said. They had a mandatory oxygen mask and AED refresher class just that morning.
Quick transfer: When the lifeguard truck brought me off the sand to be transferred to the ambulance, Joe said they normally have to wait a few minutes and have time to get all the preliminary questions asked. As soon as they pulled up, the ambulance was right there, pulled in and was able to take me to the ER.
Truck proximity and supplies: When Luis yelled for help, the message was relayed through bystanders who flagged down the lifeguard truck. At any given time on the beach, the truck with a life-saving AED could be four to five minutes away. In my situation, the truck was only a hundred yards away. Lifeguards were a couple of hundred feet from me on the beach when I went down. A CPR-trained bystander acted swiftly and started compressions within two minutes of the occurrence. Within three to five minutes, an AED was attached and after two shocks, saved my life.
But those shocks did more than save my life: They brought clarity to my life’s direction. My good fortune could not go without response. Thus, I am working to help the Jacksonville Beach Volunteer Life-Saving Corps with their continued fundraising efforts to keep their volunteer program flourishing.
AED access and laws need to change. They should be as accessible as a fire extinguisher, and people should react to them in the same way. You can buy an AED online for the same price as a laptop computer, yet there are so many places — schools, gyms, public parks — that don’t have them. For those reasons, I am beginning to help in the advocacy of improved AED laws and access at the local, state and federal levels.
Finally, I am working with the American Heart Association State Advocacy Team for Florida to raise awareness for CPR/AED initiatives and heart research because cardiomyopathy and many other heart diseases are not cured, so there is much more work to be done.
I survived an event that fewer than 10 percent of people live through — non-hospitalized sudden cardiac arrest. The reason that number is so low is because people normally do not have timely access to an AED and early CPR. I was beyond fortunate.
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