My family’s heart attack story and why you need to learn CPR

On the Wednesday before Christmas, Rob was out in the backyard, chopping wood for the fire pit, and neatly stacking it up.

Rob is married to my husband’s sister, Aimee. They live in Florida.

Rob is known in our family as the guy who builds things like decks and outdoor cabanas and sunrooms. With no plans or drawings. The ideas pour from his imagination, and are implemented purely from the calculations in his head.

His tools hang on the wall of his garage in perfect order. There’s a box for clean rags…and a second box for dirty rags. I’ve seen this. Rob is a perfectionist. He’s an electrician, a carpenter, a plumber. He can program remotes and trouble shoot any TV/home theatre system.

And he thrives on creating and then constructing something new for his family and friends to enjoy.

Rob's fire pit

Aimee is used to Rob’s penchant for puttering around, working on projects. She’d returned from a morning of Christmas shopping that Wednesday, and sat down to take a break. As she was channel surfing, she looked up to see Rob come in from outside.

“Will you sit with me,” Rob asked her. “I’m going to lie down. I’m not feeling very good.”

This wasn’t an unusual request. Aimee says Rob is frequently so drawn to a project that he skips breakfast. Sometimes he feels a little shaky, stops, and takes a rest.

But as she sat next to the bed, Aimee sensed something was different. “Does it feel like there’s an anvil on your chest?” she asked. No, said Rob. “Any chest pains?” No, said Rob. “Do your arms hurt?” No.

He wanted to feel for his pulse. Aimee found it to be steady and normal. What was going on? Rob switched positions, trying to get comfortable. He was sweating.

“I think I’m going to throw up. Can you get me the trash can?”

Aimee went in to the bathroom to get it. Noticing that there was trash in it, she told Rob she was going to run and get a plastic bag or something else for him to use. When she returned, she heard the sound of vomiting coming from the bathroom.

Aimee ran to her computer and Googled heart attack symptoms. She scanned down the web page and saw the some of the typical signs – chest discomfort, pain in the arms, legs or jaw.

But then she saw this, further down the list: (Symptoms) may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness.

She returned to the bedroom where she found Rob, now back in bed. She instinctively grabbed a cold, damp towel to bring to him. As she began to place it on his head, he started making a gagging sound.

His head jerked back, his neck arched. For a nanosecond, Aimee thought he might be joking- throwing his head back in the “clear the airway” position for CPR. His arms and legs jerked unnaturally. It was all so surreal.

As his eyes rolled back and his lips turned blue, Aimee says another thought entered her mind. A co-worker had lost her husband months earlier when he suffered a massive heart attack.

She knew she had to act fast. She grabbed the phone, dialed 911, and screamed for her son, Robby, 18, down the hall in his bedroom. “Dad’s having a heart attack! I need help!”

Aimee’s a science and math teacher, and had often volunteered to be one of the required CPR certified faculty members at her school. I’ve known her since she was 14. She’s a cut-to-the chase, down-to-business kind of person.

But it had been six years since she had taken a CPR class. “I always heard people say CPR, oh I totally forget that. But you really don’t. It’s amazing how it comes right back.”

She thought to put the 911 dispatcher on speakerphone. “Put your ear to his mouth. Is he breathing?” He wasn’t. “She told us we had to get him off the bed, and on to the floor.”

So Robby took his dad’s shoulders, and Aimee held his ankles. Together, somehow, they got Rob, who is a robust man, down from the big four-poster bed and on to the floor.

Aimee says her hands knew exactly where to go on her husband’s chest. “You’re going to do 600 compressions,” said the operator. “I’m counting with you.”

It was a fast pace. “I was just in the moment, said Aimee. “ I knew I had to keep the heart beating. I’m a science teacher. I just knew.”

Aimee says they’d counted seventy-five compressions when the operator told her the first responders from Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department were outside. Robby jumped up to take over. “I told him to just push right here. Just keep pushing.” Aimee hurried to unlock the door.

Four members of JFRD walked in to the bedroom. Aimee and Robby stepped aside. “They were like Supermen. They took our four poster bed and pushed it to the side like it was nothing.” It had been less than 5 minutes since Aimee had initiated the call.

They continued CPR. An ambulance arrived just two minutes later with more paramedics.

There was no breathing. And  no pulse.

Aimee and Robby looked on as paramedics placed patches connected to a defibrillator on Rob’s chest. “Clear!” They watched as his chest arched up six inches off the floor. Still no pulse.

They tried a second time. Nothing.

The angles of the house prevented paramedics from bringing in the gurney; so they picked him up and carried him hammock-style. They put him on the gurney, now in the garage next to the impeccably kept tool bench. They wheeled him to the ambulance to try again and establish an airway through intubation.

Aimee and Robby watched as the ambulance pulled away, headed to Jacksonville’s Mayo clinic, a very short drive from their home. That’s when the tears came. Aimee broke down, hugging a neighbor, on her driveway. How could all of this just happened within a span of just minutes?

Alex, 16, Aimee and Rob’s other son, had been running an errand when he got the word from Robby to come right home. They all drove to the hospital to find out what was next.

At some point, either in the ambulance or in the emergency room, success. The defibrillator had re-started Rob’s heart. Cardiologists placed a stent in Rob’s left descending anterior artery, or “the widowmaker,” as it is called. It was 100% blocked.

It was exactly same condition that had taken the life of Aimee’s coworker’s husband at the start of the school year.

Rob spent the next several days in intensive care, on a ventilator. Doctors cooled his body to a lower temperature to help enhance the healing process to his damaged heart muscle.

Still, no one could predict the outcome. Had his brain suffered a lack of oxygen? If so, for how long? Which functions might be affected? It was a waiting game.

Aimee began a bedside vigil. Her friends and relatives sent messages of support. Her parents (my in-laws) drove 16 hours straight to be with her. Rob’s parents arrived, too. More tears.

Doctors explained the technical details of what had happened, and the worse-case scenarios of what may lie ahead. Nationwide, they told Aimee, the survival rate for people with Rob’s type of heart attack — those that make it to the hospital at all –is only 8%.  Only one percent, they said, actually walk out of the hospital.

She kept talking to him, not sure if he could hear her, or if he ever would. We texted:

They began the warming process. There were setbacks. Infection and fever set in, we found, as Aimee texted family members on Friday, the day before Christmas Eve.

The news hung heavy over members of our family. I knew Aimee’s phone was her lifeline, so I texted her late in to the night Phoenix time, middle of the night Jacksonville time. I wanted her to know how I marveled at her bravery and strength.

For a while, we heard nothing. Then, a Facebook message and this text pinged in:

By Christmas Eve, Rob was sitting up in a chair. He wanted to watch the New York Giants play. Aimee put the game on, but the volume on the remote wasn’t working properly. “Hand it to me,” said Rob. “I’ll  fix it.”

He was back.

Robby, right, with Alex and Rob

A Christmas miracle

The road to recovery won’t be easy; restrictions abound. There’s talk about big lifestyle changes. New medications.

There’s the risk of depression in post myocardial infarction (heart attack) patients. Family members of intensive care patients run the risk of developing post traumatic stress disorder.

Rob was discharged from the hospital one week to the hour that Aimee had called 911. Encouraged by a close friend, she wanted to try to get in touch with the firefighters and paramedics that came with lightening speed to save Rob’s life, to thank them.

She reached the local fire chief, who pointed out that his team wasn’t the only reason Rob had made it. Aimee’s knowledge…and her willingness…to perform those chest compressions factored in as well. So did Robby’s ability to stay calm and step up when needed.

Many people are too afraid to dive in and help during an emergency like Rob’s, said the chief. They get upset, they freeze, or they have no experience with CPR.

Your hands can save a life: Resources and more on the new CPR

Not my sister-in-law Aimee. She’s smart. And brave. She knew where to put her hands, she stayed calm, her training served her just when she needed it most. “I did what anyone would do. I just saved my husband. I didn’t want him going anywhere.”

Related RAK stories:

Shirley Dunlap, Phoenix Fire 911 dispatcher

Phoenix Fire Battalion Chief Sheila Roberts


8 responses to “My family’s heart attack story and why you need to learn CPR

  1. Thank you, VIcki, for sharing our story in such a beautiful way 🙂

  2. This says it all, Vicki!!!
    What a great telling of the tale…

  3. Excellent storytelling, Vicki! Nicely done.

  4. Beautifully written Vicki – what a good reminder to update that CPR certification!

  5. Vicki, thank goodness Rob made it! Great job on the writing piece. I hope the good news continues.

  6. Thanks, all, for the comments. I hope this story inspires more people to learn CPR.

  7. I was faced with a similar situation 5 years ago with an unhappy ending. I awoke to find my significant passed out on the bed. He appeared to be dead. There was no detec table pulse. I called 911 immediately and the fellow asked if I knew CPR. It had been about 20 years since I had taken CPR at work. Anyhow, I felt confident and the emergency person said he would talk me through it and would stay on the line. The problem I had was that my friend was substantial (my guess 250+ lbs.) and I am partially handicapped and alone. I couldn’t open the airway. I tried to administer CPR on the bed to no avail. I saw several EMTs wrap him in the sheet and place him on the floor to administer CPR. I was taken to another room to distract me and to answer questions. In hindsight, I should have dragged him to the floor anyway possible. I could not press deep enough on the bed to make a difference. I truly believe he had already passed away and I had no way of knowing how long he had been out. You want to do your best and that wasn’t good enough. I was fighting a losing battle from the start.

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