BY AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Michael DeMarco and his wife were probably in the best shape of their adult lives. They were slimming down, eating a paleo diet and doing cross-fit training. So when Michael felt weird while riding his stationary bike at home one morning, he called to his middle-school daughter for help.
Aly, who was 12 at the time, heard her dad just as she was headed out the door to catch the bus. She figured he probably needed help watching her little sister. Instead, he began falling over and told Aly to call her mom. Michael’s wife, Marion, was taking another daughter to school and forgot to take her cellphone. When her mom didn’t answer, Aly decided to call 911.
Michael was 42 when his heart suddenly stopped. It wasn’t a heart attack, but an abnormal rhythm that caused his sudden cardiac arrest. Aly didn’t know what was wrong but did as the 911 dispatcher instructed. She turned her dad, who was now unconscious, onto his back and began CPR. It’s a skill she learned in a babysitting class just seven months earlier, and it kept oxygen-rich blood flowing to her dad’s brain and other vital organs.
“I put my hands right on his chest and they would count for me. They would say, ‘One, two, three, four,’ and on every count, I would push down as hard as I could. I did this for probably 8 1/2 minutes until the ambulance showed up,” said Aly, now 14.
“I was so thankful I took that class, because I knew somewhat what I was doing,” she said.
Marion heard the sirens when she stopped at the dry cleaners nearby. She thought there probably had been a car crash. As she got closer to her house, she realized where they were.
Aly ran to her mom, tired and afraid she hadn’t done everything right.
“Whatever you did was perfect,” Marion assured her.
She went inside to see her husband but was quickly ushered out to be with her daughters. But before she walked out, she heard the paramedics yell, “Clear!” as they administered a shock to Michael’s heart. It took three shocks from an automated external defibrillator, or AED, to restart his heart.
The Austin, Texas, homebuilder still has trouble remembering what happened in the two weeks before and after his heart stopped that Valentine’s Day in 2014. (Short-term memory loss is reported by some cardiac arrest survivors.) Doctors put him in a medically induced coma for three days, and he needed another three days to wake up. When he did, Michael couldn’t use the right side of his body. Fortunately, use returned fairly quickly.
Doctors determined Michael had an arrhythmia and implanted a defibrillator in his chest should his heart ever need a shock to return to a normal rhythm. On and off throughout his life, Michael had felt what he thought were heart palpitations, but he was told it was likely anxiety. He also underwent testing to check for problems, even wearing a heart monitor. He was cleared.
“They were always kind of bothersome because I didn’t know what it was until this event. Now I know what they are,” he said.
Michael knows he overcame long odds to make a full recovery. Now he and Aly like to share their story to spread awareness about the lifesaving measure that will always bond them.
Aly speaks at American Heart Association events but also takes her message to her peers and classmates.
“You should take a CPR class,” she tells them. “You may not think you are ever going to use it, but I had no idea I was ever going to use it. And the day I had to use it, I was very thankful I took my CPR class.”
Michael is among the roughly 326,000 Americans who have an emergency medical services-assessed cardiac arrest outside the hospital each year. Although bystander CPR can double or triple a person’s chance of survival, fewer than half receive it, according to the AHA.
“You’re never too young to save someone’s life,” Michael said. “This stuff is real.”
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Photos courtesy of DeMarco family