Heart Safe: Surviving a heart attack through training and a little bit of luck

Serendipity was on John Shea’s side in myriad ways one cold, rainy, windy October morning.

Volunteering for Community Action House to pick up food donations on Oct. 26, Shea’s usually scheduled partner was out of town, so Jay Peters stepped in. Shea was feeling under the weather, so Peters drove the refrigerated box truck that day.

It was also chance that Peters had taken a CPR class a few weeks earlier and knew the latest information on how to perform the life-saving procedure.

While the pair waited at the Holland Township Meijer loading dock for their turn to load food being donated to the CAH Food Club, Peters happened to pull out his phone to pass the time.

“It sounded like he had fallen asleep,” Peters says of Shea. “I looked at him, and I knew instantly this was an event.”

With his phone in his hand, Peters dialed 911 immediately. The dispatcher started walking him through the process of cardiopulmonary resuscitation — CPR. But Peters knew exactly what to do.

Heart Safe Community

The origins of John Shea’s story begin a few years ago when organizers presented their ideas for making Holland a Heart Safe Community to the Holland City Council. Jay Peters represents the city’s 2nd Ward. Although the council was receptive to the idea, the pandemic soon put everything on hold.

Steve Stegeman and others are again picking up the mantle to make Holland a Heart Safe Community. One of the requirements is that 15% of the local population learn CPR techniques each year. The process is in its infancy, but when Stegeman happened to move in across the street from his city councilman, he asked Peters if he and some other neighbors would like to see what the education piece of the Heart Safe Community would look like.

And so, on an evening in early October of this year, Jay Peters and his wife found themselves and a few of their neighbors learning CPR with Stegeman, who has been a paramedic and a CPR teacher for 40 years.

It would be good information to have, Peters thought. Heart problems run in the Peters family. Jay Peters’ dad died of cardiac arrest at 57. Jay was 10.

Peters and his neighbors took the two-hour class. It doesn’t provide official CPR certification, but it does give participants a foundation in CPR as well as choking and severe bleeding intervention.

“When you are learning this you think, ‘I’m probably never ever going to have to do this, but I guess it’s good to know, just in case,’” Peters says.

Critical time

At the Meijer loading dock on that October morning, Peters tossed his phone on the dash — 911 operator and all — and jumped down from the truck cab. He raced to the other side and unbuckled his friend from his seatbelt.

“The two of us came crashing down onto the pavement,” Peters says.

What Peters knew was he had to get Shea onto a hard surface, like the pavement.

“(CPR) is so simple,” Peters says. “All I needed to remember was ‘I need to do chest compressions, and I need to get him on a hard surface.’ Had I not had the training I had three weeks earlier, I’m quite sure it would have been a different outcome.”

CPR is not what most people remember from middle school health class. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is no longer used except by medical professionals, because research has shown that continuous, hard chest compressions are the most effective strategy for lay people.

When someone collapses, the faster someone can start chest compressions, the better their chances of survival, according to the American Heart Association.

“When you witness something — someone collapsed, someone bleeding — you roughly have 2 minutes to intervene and save someone’s life,” Stegeman says.

Shake the person and if they don’t come around, start compressions immediately, he says.

Nationally, more than 2,000 people have a cardiac arrest each day, and 85%-90% die (outside of a hospital setting), according to the American Heart Association. Statistics vary among agencies, however, those who are given CPR and shocked within the first 2-4 minutes have survival rates that can double or triple or more.

'Beyond lucky'

Kneeling in the rain, Peters continued the compressions on Shea’s chest for the next 3 to 4 minutes. Then he heard sirens. A half-dozen emergency vehicles — sheriff’s cruisers, fire trucks, an ambulance — pulled up and emergency responders took over. When they deployed the automated external defibrillator (AED) and shocked Shea, his body jumped off the pavement, Peters says. The emergency crews intubated Shea and placed him in an ambulance before taking him to Spectrum Zeeland Community Hospital and, ultimately, The Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids.

Shea remembers none of it.

“Not a thing, blessedly, I was absolutely out. I was out for about 34 hours,” he says. “By the time, I was awake, it was known I was out of danger. Everybody else had to live with the trauma.”

Shea is an outwardly healthy 68 year old. He’s semi-retired and physically active. He cycles from Holland to Saugatuck and back with friends on a weekly basis. Once a year, the group of about 15 cycle across the state. He’s the second youngest of the group.

“If you were to look at our group, I don’t think you would guess me (to have a heart attack),” Shea says. “I certainly didn’t guess me.”

The type of heart attack Shea suffered is called the “widow maker.” A widow maker happens when the left anterior descending artery is blocked, stopping blood flow to the left side of the heart. This one came without any of the usual warning signs. Shea had none of the usual symptoms (chest and arm pain, lightheadedness, shortness of breath) at all except for some fatigue, he says.

Most of the time people having a heart attack remain conscious, and if they don't seek help soon, they can go into cardiac arrest, their heart stops beating, and they collapse, Stegeman says, and CPR is needed ASAP.

Only about 12% of people who suffer a widow maker survive. The chances for those who have immediate intervention double.

“It was an absolute miracle. And now that I know more about the statistics, I am one lucky guy — beyond lucky,” Shea says.

Empowering ordinary life savers

There are some residual effects, of course. Shea has heart damage, including stenosis where his heart valves don’t quite open properly. He participates in cardiac rehab three days a week. His ribs are still a little sore, and he “could take a nap any time,” he says.

“That’s a small price to pay,” Shea says.

The mission of the Holland Heart Safe Community task force is to empower ordinary people to save lives using simple techniques. The Heart Safe Community designation helps communities evaluate their readiness for “cardiac events.”

Aside from the requirement that 15% of the population be trained each year in CPR and AED use, to become a Heart Safe Community, a municipality must keep statistics about cardiac arrest survival rates, etc., know where every public AED is, and have a quality improvement program.

The task force wants to increase the number of AEDs available in Holland — and, equally importantly, to make sure the public knows they are safe to use.

Misconceptions surround AEDs, Stegeman says. People believe AEDs are complicated, or that they will accidentally shock themselves or others, or that they will be held liable if they are unsuccessful.

Bystander laws specifically protect lay people who intervene from liability.

'Foolproof'

And once the AED is turned on, the device gives clear verbal directions. It tells the user where to place the pads, what buttons to push, if a shock is needed — everything. It will not issue a shock if one is not warranted.

“It’s foolproof,” Peters says, “and it saves lives.”

The city’s fire department is the sponsoring agency for the Heart Safe Community application and will support the task force’s effort with data, educational materials, staff time and knowledge, fire Capt. Chris Tinney says.

Although Holland’s fire department has always offered CPR classes on an as-needed basis, the training the Heart Safe Community task force would be more comprehensive, Tiney says. It wouldn’t result in CPR certification, but the free training is the same class Peters took and would give a foundational knowledge in life saving techniques. Heart Safe Community organizers hope to have a weekly free class beginning next year.

The CPR classes Steve Stegeman envisions for Holland include not just cardiopulmonary resuscitation and the use of AEDs which can be found increasingly in public buildings such as schools, libraries, and churches, but recognizing choking and performing the Heimlich maneuver, including on yourself, and how to stop severe bleeding. (It also happens that one of the class’ participants found herself alone and choking and performed the self-Heimlich technique she was taught, saving her own life, Stegeman says.)

"More AEDs, more people willing to use them, more people trained in CPR — we'll save more lives, no doubt," Peters says.

And Jay Peters and John Shay had dinner together Saturday night.

Read more articles by Andrea Goodell.