Editor’s Note: February is American Heart Month. Each Thursday throughout the month, the Clinton Herald is publishing feature stories about those who have survived cardiac events as well as ways that readers can improve their own cardiovascular health. This is the third story in our series.
FULTON, Ill. — A trucker by trade, James Walters was busy working at his other job at the auto spa he owns at the foot of the North Bridge, in Fulton, on a recent Saturday morning.
His wife, Carrie, was at home. She works at the Starbucks inside Clinton’s Hy-Vee store on any given Saturday, but it turned out that a switch in her work schedule allowed her to be home that snowy day.
It was about 10:45 a.m. when she got a call from James, who had been working on some projects at the auto spa. He was short of breath and feeling pain in his chest. He asked Carrie to bring him his blood pressure cuff and wanted to talk about whether he should seek treatment.
She got in the car and made the short, five-minute drive to the shop. When she got there, she learned James had been talking to the owner of the building, telling him that he was in pain. She noticed that James kept pushing on the center of chest and saying that the pain wasn’t like anything he had felt before.
They climbed into the car and headed for the hospital with Carrie behind the wheel. James lit a cigarette, saying it might be his last one. He didn’t smoke it, but instead threw it out the window, Carrie said. Then as they crossed the bridge, his head fell, he convulsed and he stopped responding.
A panicking Carrie called 9-1-1. She was asked if she wanted an ambulance to meet her. Carrie, still driving, said she wasn’t that far from MercyOne’s north campus and would drive straight there. She remembers honking her horn and racing through traffic, and some red lights, to get to the hospital.
She got to the hospital, ran into the emergency room area and started banging on the window. She happened to know the worker behind the window.
“Something is happening with Jimmy,” Carrie yelled.
An emergency room nurse, Jenette Martinez, ran to the hospital parking lot. James, who was buckled into his seat, was slumped over. Martinez got into the car’s front seat and started performing CPR on James as Carrie stood in the parking lot being comforted by the hospital chaplain.
James, at the age of 44, had gone into cardiac arrest.
According to the American Heart Association, sudden cardiac arrest occurs suddenly and often without warning. It is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart that causes an irregular heartbeat, known as arrhythmia. With its pumping action disrupted, the heart cannot pump blood to the brain, lungs and other organs. Seconds later, a person loses consciousness and has no pulse. Death occurs within minutes if the victim does not receive treatment.
In James’ case, three people continued to do CPR for 15 minutes as he was brought into the hospital. His heart was shocked four times. The outlook was grim. Even though his heart was beating again, medical staff said his brain had been deprived of oxygen for two to three minutes. They weren’t sure he would wake up, or how his brain would react if he did.
He was taken to the cath lab and a stent was placed in an artery that was 95 percent blocked. He was sedated overnight, and when that would start wearing off, and again when he was removed from sedation the next morning, he was agitated. But he was coming around, Carrie said.
By the morning of Jan. 13, he was awake and talking but he didn’t know where he was or why he was there. He was asking the same questions repeatedly, not knowing he’d already been told the answer. Carrie was worried that his brain might be showing signs of damage.
As it turned out, James would recover; just three days after being in full cardiac arrest, he was released to go home.
Today, he remembers none of the events of Jan. 12. All he knows about that day comes from the stories of those around him.
“I woke up and didn’t know where I was at or why,” he said.
While he doesn’t remember the specific events, he has pieced together the “why”: Three years prior, he had been diagnosed with heart disease. He was put on high blood pressure medication at the time and knew that he had two blockages – one that measured 40 percent and another at 60 percent.
But he didn’t like the way he felt on the medication. He was sleepy and didn’t want that to interfere with his truck driving.
“I got to the point where I said ‘I have to make a living,’” he said.
Without skipping a beat, he quit his medication, stopped going to his doctor’s appointments and continued smoking two to three packs of cigarettes a day.
On Jan. 12, as he worked at his shop – almost three years to the day of his original diagnosis – his heart began beating erratically.
Then it stopped.
Carrie has been told by medical staff that she made the correct decision when she continued to drive to the hospital, since seconds count in this case and stopping to wait for an ambulance would have added on more waiting time.
In looking back, the couple agree that everything had to line up perfectly for James to survive. His wife was home and able to go to his workplace, he got to the hospital soon after his cardiac event and CPR was started in the hospital parking lot.
“He is a miracle,” she said as he nodded in agreement. “He shouldn’t be here.”
Now, a little more than a month later, he is back to work. He goes to cardiac rehab classes three times a week at MercyOne. He still smokes but has cut back, and has the goal to stop smoking altogether.
He says if he could go back in time knowing what he knows now, he would definitely have kept his doctor’s appointments and tried other blood pressure medications instead of walking away from his treatment plan.
“Do what they tell you to do,” he said.
Next week: Learn about a lifestyle education program designed to help people make long-lasting lifestyle changes and to improve their heart health.