Posted on 08/06/2008

Stan Wisniewski, Chicago, IL – 24 at time of event (1954)

When Stan collapsed onto on the darkened radiology lab floor, cardiology was not yet mainstream, and defibrillators were mains powered. Drugs were revolutionizing medicine and antibiotics were used liberally, but surgery was king. And Stan is still here today because of those three disciplines. If he had had his cardiac arrest 50 years later he might have kept those two ribs and his left nipple. But he is not sorry at all. “Whatever happens, happens. We’ll make the best of it,” Stan says is his motto.

“I went into the radiology dark room to check on some films. I sat down and felt a little warm—but no pain whatsoever, not in my arms, nor headaches or anything. I just keeled over. The others continued working, but, when they turned the lights on, they saw me lying on the floor!”

The radiologist immediately started CPR and someone called for help. A surgeon was passing by and realized that Stan had suffered a cardiac arrest—no pulse, no respirations. He knew that Stan would need more than CPR, but time was of the essence. They just didn’t have time to get him upstairs. This surgeon was very used to emergency action, and his time in WWII had taught him to “be prepared”. He whipped out his pocketknife and made an incision in Stan’s chest, between the third and fourth ribs, and started direct cardiac massage with his fingers.

“There was no blood coming out of me, I was blue. I was dead!” Stan explained that this unusual procedure is what saved his brain and organs. But it did not get his heart started again. They needed to get him off the floor and into a sterile operating room! “Once they got me onto the operating table they had oxygen and other treatments available. Also there were other residents along with the three doctors working on me. You know, it was internal massage!” The physicians took turns to massage his heart for three minutes each. This “relay race” continued for over two hours!

The only defibrillator in the city of Chicago had to be brought by ambulance from a nearby hospital. “Once they plugged it in, it shorted out and blew a fuse. So, that [solution] was out.” Stan told me without hesitation. “Even now, when I think of that day, I say ‘God, how lucky I was’. I really appreciate being here today.” Stan said with obvious sincerity. “You know, I always took care of myself. I was never a drinker; I enjoy it if we go out, but two drinks, three drinks that’s max. I smoked a little bit when I got out of the Navy, but soon dropped it. And, I always got a lot of sleep. I was never out two or three in the morning—that just wasn’t my style.”

An alternative method of defibrillation had to be found. It was decided to try chemical defibrillation; using potassium chloride (as used in lethal injection executions) to stop any electrical activity and then calcium gluconate to reactivate it. After several attempts, followed by direct massage, Stan’s heart restarted and his pulse returned. His chest was closed up and he was sent to ICU to recover. His future fiancée, and now wife of over 50 years, Jaci, who worked with Stan in the radiology lab, sat by his side until he woke up the next day. There was no brain damage, and no heart defects, only some pneumonia from the collapsed lung!

To this day Stan doesn’t know why he arrested, or how he could have survived. The only evidence is an old EKG strip, and it was only a two lead unit (today we routinely use 12 lead EKG machines).

“I never missed a day of work before. At grammar school, maybe one day, and at college I was just never sick.” Stan said with pride, and then went on to say “I was discharged from hospital on the 20th day, and then I went back to work in February 1955 (10 weeks after his arrest). And I retired in 1993!” 

-Jeremy Whitehead