LOS ANGELES–Stan Wisniewski, 79, and his wife, Jaci, 74, are seated comfortably in their white living room near a framed embroidery work depicting a flowing dragon. A grandfather clock chimes softly noting the quarters of the hour.
The San Dimas couple look and feel great. They have enjoyed their 50-plus years together, perhaps a bit more than other couples.
That is because Wisniewski could have died, at age 24, from cardiac arrest. That was in 1954, long before the development of aggressive cardiac treatments that are available today. He lived because a surgeon used a pocketknife to open his chest and massage his heart with bare hands.
Today is the 55th anniversary of that day. Wisniewski is the longest surviving cardiac arrest patient listed in the records of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation.
The experience has "made me appreciate life," Wisniewski said. "And I don't take anything for granted."
Wisniewski had a degree in radiation physics from UCLA and served in the medical service corps of the Navy for four years during the Korean War. He was discharged in June 1954 and in September, landed a job as a radiologic technologist at Lutheran Deaconess Hospital in Chicago.
He didn't think he had any health problems. At 24, Wisniewski was a sturdy 5 feet, 10 inches and 190 pounds. He didn't smoke, drink or stay up late. He passed Navy and life insurance physicals with ease.
The only problem I had was one small filling in my tooth; that was it," Wisniewski said.
At noon on Dec. 17, 1954, it seemed like a normal day in the hospital's X-ray darkroom, except that Wisniewski felt a little warm. The two techs working in the darkroom with him joked that it must be his Christmas socks. The next thing they heard was a thump: Wisniewski had hit the floor.
"The cardiac arrest and the coronary are two different things," Wisniewski explained. "The coronary - or heart attack - is the plumbing section of the heart, the arteries and the veins. The cardiac arrest, as in my case, was electrical, which is sudden death. When that happens, you are dead - and I was."
Because there were no lights on in the darkroom, the techs didn't realize what had happened and continued with their work, processing the X-rays by hand: three minutes in the developer, then in the fix solution. Only then did the techs turn on the lights and see Wisniewski's body on the floor.
Dr. Joel Knudson happened to be nearby, so he was called in and began artificial respiration. Soon, Dr. C. David Brown arrived and administered a shot of epinephrine into Wisniewski's pericardium, the double-walled sac that contains the heart and the roots of the great vessels.
There was no respiration and no pulse. Brown, an ex-Army surgeon, realized they needed to do something fast.
"Dr. Brown said he had nothing to lose," Wisniewski said. "I was 24 years old and in perfect health, so he opened my chest up with a pocketknife and cut out two ribs. Then he started internal massage with his fingers."
The hospital's chief surgeon, Dr. George F. Schroeder, came down and offered to help. Continuing the heart massage, the doctors got Wisniewski on a gurney and took him to surgery.
The PA system crackled to life, calling for any free physicians to head to surgery for an emergency, but it was lunchtime and many of the doctors had already left for their offices to see their afternoon patients. The doctors who answered the call took three-minute turns massaging Wisniewski's heart. Sterile techniques had been left by the wayside: They worked without gloves.
A priest was called from St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital across the street to perform the last rites. But the doctors were not ready to give up.
There was only one defibrillator in the entire city of Chicago. It was tracked down, delivered and plugged in. It blew a fuse, so it was useless. The doctors continued the heart massage.
"Everybody's hands were in my chest," Wisniewski said.
It had been two hours and 15 minutes, and still the doctors had been unable to get Wisniewski's heart beating again, so they administered medication to stop it and another medication to restart it. Finally, his heart twitched wildly and began beating. Wisniewski was sewn up, pumped with antibiotics and placed in a room in an oxygen tent.
Jaci Dressler also worked at the hospital, and she and Stan were friends. She was a student radiology tech and home ill on the day of his cardiac arrest. The next day, she came into work and went into the coatroom to change. There was a a bench for employees to use to change their shoes, a chair and a cot.
"We had one tech laying on the bench, one sitting in the chair sleeping, and two on the cot sleeping," Jaci said. "I turned on the lights and here's everybody sleeping in their uniforms. They woke up and told me what was going on and I couldn't believe it."
The doctors were not sure whether Wisniewski had suffered brain damage or lost his memory during his episode, so they told the nurses to ask him questions when he woke up. Two days later, he had short periods of consciousness. His parents had to get his car home and asked Jaci to watch over Wisniewski in the meantime.
"Every time Stan would wake up, I would say, `What is your name?' And he'd tell me his name," Jaci said. "`How old are you?' He'd tell me how old he was. I asked him all these questions, and a half an hour later, when he woke up again, I'd ask him all the questions again. After the fourth or fifth time, he got a little agitated. I told him I was just very inquisitive."
Hospitals were not equipped for intensive care during those days, so Wisniewski's parents hired three private duty nurses to stay with him during his recuperation.
"At that time, nurses aides only poured water or emptied bedpans," Jaci said. "Nurses nursed - they gave meds, temperature checks, took blood pressure, they did the whole thing."
Despite taking antibiotics, Wisniewski came down with pneumonia, which was normal at that time for his condition.
"I was always going down to radiology for X-rays, serioradiographs to see what was happening from one day to the next in my chest," Wisniewski said. "Was the fluid building up? What size was my heart?"
After 20 days, Wisniewski was sent home with nitroglycerin pills. The medicine wouldn't really help him, but the doctors didn't know what else to give him. They told him to drink beer and eat peanut butter in an effort to put back on some of the 70 pounds he had lost. By mid-February, Wisniewski had recovered enough to go back to work part time.
Wisniewski's amazing story made headlines around the world, and he became an overnight celebrity. His phone number and address were sometimes published, so strangers were calling him, wanting to meet him.
Wisniewski didn't understand all the fuss and called it "a pain in the butt."
His doctors - Brown, Knudson and Schroeder - later shared their account in the Journal of the American Medical Association in February 1957. They are all deceased.
"I outlived all my doctors," Wisniewski said.
Wisniewski and Jaci remained friends and began dating. In 1955, they talked about getting married, but Wisniewski was afraid he would die in six months: No one had figured out what had brought on the cardiac arrest, and it was not known if it would happen again. He didn't want to leave behind a young widow saddled with children.
Jaci was more confident. She brought out Wisniewski's sense of humor and gave his life energy and balance. Unable to resist her bubbly personality, Wisniewski proposed and the couple were married April 27, 1957.
Wisniewski went on to head the radiology department at Lutheran General, a new hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., and when their son was born, Jaci stayed home. They moved to California in 1968 and Wisniewski worked at Good Samaritan Hospital, followed by St. Vincent's Medical Center, both in Los Angeles, retiring in 1993. Jaci had been doing radiology billing since 1967 and gradually returned to her chosen field as the children went through school, retiring in 1996.
Today, their daughter lives in North Carolina and their son is married with twins in Arcadia.
The couple keep active. They use an exercise bicycle twice a day and take morning walks. They eat a healthy diet. They enjoy travel, auto racing, football and gardening. They volunteer for San Dimas HEROES (Helping Establish a Remembrance of Every Serviceperson), which sponsors a banner program and is working to create a permanent memorial to veterans in the city.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't give at least a few seconds' thought to what happened back in 1954," Wisniewski said. "You're here today and you're gone tomorrow. I don't take anything for granted."
SOURCE: LA Daily News