Waking up from cardiac arrest

I nearly died a month ago on a treadmill halfway through a stress test.

The short story is this: I had just gone to bed and was about to go to sleep when I started to have some chest pain that I told myself was just my usual heartburn, only worse. As a gastroenterologist, I knew better. It was bad enough that I couldn’t go to sleep. After two sleepless hours of denial and mounting pain, I conceded that it was time to get help. I woke my wife and called 911 for ambulance to the ER.

I chose to go to my own community hospital even though I could have gone to an Ivy League “world-class” hospital that is equidistant; the staff at my own ER know me and they are family. One of my most trusted ER doctors saw me. But strangely, by the time I arrived, the pain was nearly gone. I proceeded to have a normal EKG. The cardiac enzyme levels in the blood returned negative. So, probably no heart attack. But was it angina? My cardiologist recommended a stress test immediately, since my wife and I had long-anticipated plans to get on a plane that afternoon and fly across the country to visit my kids.

Well, I failed my stress test. Big-time. Halfway through, just after I finished relating a humorous scene from a movie where a character drops dead, my heart stopped. They laid me on a stretcher, pounded my chest and performed CPR. I was brought back from ventricular fibrillation with a defibrillator and a single shock of 200 joules. I was rushed to a tertiary care center where I underwent emergency angiography showing a high-grade narrowing at the origin of my largest artery. (Narrowing to that degree in that location is sometimes called a widow-maker.)

I was placed on IV anti-platelet agents and other blood thinners while my doctors waited for me to decide between a bypass and having stents inserted. They recommended bypass surgery over stenting and I chose surgery. My operation was performed through an incision between two ribs, with my heart beating, by a surgeon using what is known as a robot. My cardiologist friend up the street tells me they aren’t even doing heart surgery that way yet in the Ivy League hospital in New Haven. Thanks to my surgeon’s talent and the efforts of everyone along my journey, I am alive to write this entry, and I expect to write more on this topic. I walked out of the hospital 3 days after my surgery. I am indeed a very, very lucky man.

But one of the reasons I am telling this tale is to share what it was like from my viewpoint to experience waking up from cardiac arrest. Now I have participated in a few “codes,” as cardiopulmonary resuscitations are called in hospitals, as a witness, particularly when I was in training, and I have watched a few people wake up promptly. It is unforgettable experience. One that stands out in my mind took place when I was an intern in the emergency room at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. A man had arrived in chest pain and we were doing the usual EKG and blood testing when he suddenly lost consciousness. The cardiac monitor above his head revealed why. His heart was in ventricular fibrillation, the abnormal heart rhythm that can result from a heart attack among other things, and end in death if not corrected.

I was told to start pumping on the chest as I had done so many other patients before, futilely, as the usual crowd of nurses and supervisors and anesthesiologist arrived. But this time the outcome was an exception. My resident charged the paddles, yelled, “Clear!” just the way you see do on TV, and administered the jolt. The man’s torso practically jumped 6 inches off the stretcher and he almost immediately sat up and asked, “What’s going on? What are all these people doing here? What happened?” My resident and mentor, before even turning to the patient with an explanation, announced to the assembled team, “See? Electricity is GOOD for you!” as if he did this stuff for fun. We, the house staff, celebrated the occasion in the retelling.

In my own case, in the role of patient, the experience was quite different altogether. I didn’t get to witness the event. One minute I was walking and asking the cardiologist what level of exercise I had achieved thus far. I was anxious to finish the test so my wife and I could make it to the airport in time. My main thoughts were on our trip to San Francisco for a wedding celebration with friends and a visit with our children.

With my usual off-beat sense of humor I was asking him “How many mets, Mario?” This puzzled him because his name is Bob. I explained, as the treadmill was gathering speed and I was already breathing hard, that there is an old movie called “Putney Swope” that features an opening scene of a corporate board meeting in which the chairman berates the members, gesticulates wildly, and abruptly clutches his chest, and the board members don’t get it that he is having a heart attack. One of them, clearly a bit senile, thinks he is playing charades. He asks him repeatedly, “How many syllables, Mario?” until the man finally keels over dead. I had no idea how ironic I was being. The last thing I remember was the nurse saying, “Are you getting tired?” or something like that.

An unknown number of minutes later, I was awakened from a sound sleep by a hand slapping my cheek and the cardiologist’s voice saying “wake up, Dave.” My annoyance vanished in a millisecond when I opened my eye to see a roomful of people in great activity, a red cart to the right of the bed and a large hard square object between my legs that was clearly a defibrillator. When you’re a doctor and you awake to this scenery, you figure out pretty quickly what has happened to you. As if I needed to told, my friend and colleague told me from his supervisory perch at the foot of the stretcher, “Dave, you are NOT going to San Francisco today.”

Now let me say what else didn’t happen. Perhaps I was not in arrest for long enough, but I did not see any white light or view myself as if from above. They tell me they caught me promptly and lifted me down off the treadmill. I am told I had my chest thumped and then compressed until the defibrillator could be charged and I came right back after the first shock. They tell me I seized during the arrest. I later had proof of that when I realized that my tongue was severely lacerated by my teeth and my jeans were wet.

But what did I experience immediately was an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Gratitude that I was still alive. Gratitude to all the people in the room. And along with it, an immense feeling of being completely cared for in a way I don’t remember since childhood. All my life I have been caring for others in one way or another, even when I was a child. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I completely relinquished the imperative to make decisions. I placed myself completely in the hands of my colleagues and co-workers. And they came through for me in a big way.

My cardiologist probably had a far more traumatic day then I. I have been told that the incidence of sudden death during a stress test is 1 in 10,000. To have that happen to a colleague, referring doctor and a friend, on your watch, even if though it is an inherent risk that could happen to anyone, must have been very difficult emotionally. He was trying to keep his cool when he called my wife, who was across the street picking up some necessities for our flight. But she says his attempts at reassuring words were belied by his white complexion and shaking hands. In fact, I think I had an easier time of it than he did.

The strangest thoughts go through your mind sometimes. In all the commotion, I noticed that a nursing supervisor I have known for 25 years had highlighted her hair. And as they were wheeling me out of the room, I called out to her, “Nancy, I really like what you’ve done with your hair!” My journey from there to the Hartford Hospital cardiac cath lab to surgery was a whirlwind and a blur. And the road to recovery has been slower, but still seems to have proceeded at amazing speed. But more on these topics another time.

David Sack is an internal medicine physician who blogs at prescriptions.

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  • Rob Burnside

    Sometimes, we eat the bear. Sometimes, the bear eats us. And sometimes the old grizzly just sits in the treeline grinning, as if to say, “See you later.” Hope it’s way later, Doc. A fine tale, well-told, and, if you’ll pardon the expression–food for thought!

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