By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
After 24 years as a paramedic, Joe Stellwagon doesn’t take successful resuscitation of a cardiac arrest patient for granted.
“When things go right, and you see the eyes blinking, it’s just a great feeling,” said Stellwagon, a paramedic with Johnson County MED-ACT in Overland Park, Kansas.
Stellwagon was among a team of community first responders called when Karl Floth’s heart stopped in July 2015.
Karl and his wife, Susan, were driving to get ice cream when he suddenly felt lightheaded.
“Then he just slumped over and started turning red and then purple,” said Susan, who was in the passenger’s seat. She got the car stopped and tried dialing 911, but after failing to get a signal, she jumped out of the car and waved for help.
A woman who had graduated nursing school a few days earlier jumped out of a car and started chest compressions, trading off with her husband and checking vital signs. A police officer soon arrived with an automated external defibrillator, or AED, followed by an EMS crew a few minutes later.
The AED shocked Karl’s heart back to a normal rhythm. At the hospital, doctors discovered a blocked artery and reopened it the next day with a stent.
Stellwagon said Karl’s case is a great example of how the chain of survival, which includes bystander CPR and defibrillation, can save lives.
“It doesn’t come together like that very often,” said Stellwagon. “It’s tough when you get a call and no one started CPR. You start resuscitation, but you know the chances aren’t good, or that there could be brain damage.”
“The doctor told me that I was lucky to have survived,” Karl said.
The experience spurred Karl, 63, to make significant lifestyle changes. A heavy smoker for three decades, Karl immediately quit. He overhauled his diet, avoiding sodium, red meat and fatty foods, and began exercising.
“I was embarrassed I had gotten myself to that point,” he said. “I laid in that hospital and woke up every hour and just thought I owe it to everyone who was involved and to my wife to do whatever I could to get healthy.”
He also scaled back his work schedule to reduce the stress that accompanies the heavy travel required by his regional sales job.
Having spent years avoiding a doctor’s office, Karl found a cardiologist and underwent quadruple bypass surgery a couple months after his cardiac arrest. Doctors also discovered he’d survived an undiagnosed minor stroke a few years earlier.
He has since had three more stents placed in his legs and groin area.
Karl said the experience has given him a whole new understanding of what it means when he hears sirens or sees an ambulance coming.
“I get very frustrated when people don’t pull over immediately,” Karl said. “What the EMS crews perform is miracles and everyone needs to get out of their way.”
The Floths had a chance to meet Karl’s rescuers at the Johnson County HeartSafe Heroes Celebration last August, an experience Karl described as “an unbelievable high and very emotional.”
Crystal Henley, a paramedic with the Overland Park Fire Department who responded with Stellwagon, said meeting the Floths was humbling.
“People are always saying thank you, but for me it’s a calling,” Henley said. “I don’t feel like I’m doing something heroic. I’m just a normal person who just happens to have a career that allows me to truly help people.”
Since becoming a paramedic in 2013, Henley said Karl’s case is more poignant because she’s only seen a few cardiac arrest patients return to their normal lives.
“Seeing him up and talking, that meant a lot to me,” she said, adding that the work of paramedics may not have been possible without the bystander who immediately started CPR.
“If a bystander can get CPR going right away, the odds of bringing someone back is a lot better,” Henley said.
“A lot of times, we roll up on the scene and no one is doing CPR because they are scared or don’t know how. I know it can be scary, but it’s someone’s life and the sooner you can get good-quality CPR, the better chance the patient will have.”