Posted by Bob Trenkamp on 11/26/2011

By Charles McMahon November 23, 2011 2:00 AM PORTSMOUTH — It was an emotional moment on Tuesday morning at Portsmouth Regional Hospital, as Planet Fitness employee Whitni Hendley met the man whose life she helped save just one week earlier.

John Foster, 65, of Rye, said he's thankful Hendley was working when he collapsed while running on a treadmill Nov. 15 at the Lafayette Road gym.

What caused John Foster to collapse?

Cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Robert Helm said Foster's (below) heart stopped because of a condition called bicuspid aortic valve.

What is bicuspid aortic valve? It's a disorder in which the valve has only two leaflets, or flaps, that control blood flow through the heart. Like the tricuspid valve and the pulmonary valves, normal aortic valves have three tissue leaflets.

The risk: Over time, ongoing strain on the valve and heart can lead to permanent and life-threatening complications, including an enlarged heart, abnormal heart rhythms and congestive heart failure. To learn CPR: The American Heart Association teaches the technique for adults and infants. To sign up, call 433-4041.

"I remember going to the gym and starting my workout," he said. "The next thing I know, I woke up in the hospital and they told me what she did."

Hendley, 22, of York, Maine, was working at the front desk at about 6:45 a.m. when Foster went into cardiac arrest and stopped breathing. Hendley grabbed the gym's automated external defibrillator, checked for vital signs, then shocked the man until he regained a pulse.

With the assistance of another gym patron, Hendley performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Foster until paramedics arrived.

Her lifesaving efforts have been called heroic by gym members and emergency responders. Hendley said she has received congratulations from just about everyone in the gym community, perhaps the most meaningful of which came Tuesday when Hendley visited Foster at the local hospital.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "Somebody had to take charge, and (Whitni) did. I'm very grateful. She did an amazing job."

Joining the pair for the reunion was Portsmouth Regional Hospital cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Robert Helm, who helped explain what led to Foster's cardiac arrest last week.

Helm said Foster had a congenital bicuspid aortic valve, meaning the valve had only two leaflets, or flaps, to control blood flow from the heart. There normally are three.

"The heart can't get enough blood," he said of the disorder that affects about 1.5 percent of the population.

The heart surgeon said he performed a three-hour surgery on Foster last week. The surgery included a small incision in Foster's chest.

"We replaced his aortic valve and we repaired his mitral valve," Helm said.

Foster said he at first didn't want to have the surgery.

"I was not planning on staying," he said. "Then they told me what they knew and my daughter showed up. They played the 'grandkids' card."

Since the surgery, Foster said he feels great. He credited not only Hendley for the fact he is still alive, but also Helm and his team for performing the important surgery.

"Everyone's been amazing," he said.

Helm said the story involving Hendley and Foster could be educational on all fronts. He said the fact Planet Fitness trains its employees and had a defibrillator on scene was vitally important.

"These weren't around five years ago," he said of the life-saving devices.

Helm said Foster's experience should also serve as a wake-up call to people who may have heart problems and are too afraid to get them checked out.

"It's a good thing for everybody to know," he said.

With Thanksgiving coming, Foster said, he's thankful he will have a chance to celebrate the holiday with his family. Foster said he imagines this holiday, more than any other, will be a special one.

The Rye man said he is looking forward to getting back to his life once he's recovered, adding he'll surely feel like he's in good hands when is able to go back to the gym.

"I'm looking forward to working out again," he said.