Wendell Whitney Thorne
On the morning of December 12, 2018, I had a Widowmaker heart attack. It’s called the “Widowmaker” because a) it happens mostly to men and b) it affects either the Left Anterior Descending artery or the Left Coronary artery, each of which supplies blood to a great portion of the heart. When it doesn't get that blood, it dies and takes you with it.
True to its reputation, this heart attack killed me. If not for the fast actions of a bystander who knew CPR, I wouldn’t be writing this now. Her name is Deliana “Deli” Marte, and she is a Licensed Practical Nurse at the Ellenton Urgent Care Clinic in my hometown. I headed over there that morning, not long after the elephant stood on my chest. Deli saved my life.
The breathtaking pain that turned my sternum into a blazing fire that morning could not be confused for anything but a massive heart attack, yet I still began a series of internal interrogatories regarding gastrointestinal issues and esophageal problems. My god, what did I eat?, I kept asking myself, the rubbery legs, cold sweats and skin the color of granite notwithstanding.
I paced around the shop until I realized that I had involuntary dropped to my knees. My head was overtaxed with thoughts, a beehive of fear and rationalization. I sipped water and gazed out the front window at the Nineteenth-Century sugar plantation across the road when the cacophony in my brain suddenly quieted, leaving me with a single, resonating message: This is the last time you’re gonna see that mansion, the last time you are going to feel the floor beneath your feet; this is your last day, bud.
Surprisingly, I wasn't scared. Neither was I sad. The curious reaction I had when faced with my own, premature death was irritated. Annoyed. That was a fast 61 years.
Deciding that I'd wasted a bit of time lying to myself about the true nature of the agony I was feeling, I opted not to waste any more laying out my situation to my other barber, and foolishly drove to the clinic myself. (Here's a funny: I actually drove past the place and had to execute a pair of U-turns, thankful for a lull in the morning commute).
After sliding out of my truck and stumbling through the clinic's front door, I splayed out on the counter. "Are you having chest pains?" the nice lady asked. The noise I made in response must have conveyed the affirmative, and I was whisked away to an examination room, where P.A. Alex Petreas quickly hooked up the EKG and stuffed aspirin in my mouth. About the time he had the machine ready, the ambulance arrived and Charge Paramedic Heather Nesbitt stuck her head in the exam room. "Whattya got, MI?"
"I think so," said Alex. Then, glancing at the EKG he muttered, "Oh, Jesus."
Woosh, I was onto the gurney, out the door, barking instructions--call my wife, she's a teacher…Call the kids mom, she's in the medical building near the hospital--then up into the ambulance, clicked into the wheel locks--and that was it.
Deli was carrying my shirt and jacket behind the gurney, and she saw my eyes roll back into my head. She knew exactly what to do. Cramped inside Manatee County EMS ambulance Alpha 6, she began CPR chest compressions as Charge Paramedic Nesbitt and EMT Andrew Pugliere hurried to get an intra-osseous port into my arm, and the ZOLL X-2 defibrillator’s pads attached to my chest. Five minutes after my heart stopped, the ZOLL did its thing and my heart began beating again.
Only about four percent of people who experience the combination of what I did survive. As you might suspect, Deli and I share a rare and unbreakable bond, and all the people responsible for me still being here occupy my thoughts daily. Daily.
When one’s heart stops, it isn’t as if a switch has been shut off and a rescuer or medical person need only find the switch and flip it back on again. No, when the heart stops, the brain gets very busy doing a couple thousand things, two of which are 1) trying to survive and 2) preparing for death. Without getting into all the science and medicine involved (I only know a bit of it anyway), dozens of chemicals are secreted into the various systems, electrical impulses are fired and many, many of the body’s natural functions come to a halt for the first time in their lives. They don’t automatically come back online fully for a long time.
When the ZOLL's 150 Joules were unleashed on me and my heart began to pump again, it was not time to stand down from General Quarters just yet. In fact, EMT “Pug” felt obligated to attempt to set a “personal best time” at the wheel on the way to the hospital because, according to all the data available to them, there was a nasty blood clot blocking 100 percent of the blood flow to nearly two-thirds of my heart (by the way, learning to read an EKG is fascinating). I had about 90 minutes before serious and permanent heart damage—not to mention permanent cognitive damage from anoxia—sets in.
Pug even used the low, guttural whoop-whoop siren, the one reserved for folks in my situation, because I learned later that despite all the efforts of all my rescuers, none of them expected me to make it to the hospital alive. Firefighter Tom Burnett sat across from me in the ambulance, making a valiant effort to conceal his worry.
“So,” he began as Pug hit the road, “tell me everything that happened today, and do me a favor, okay? Don’t close your eyes, okay?”
“Well, one thing is I had a heart attack…” I said, then kept talking as Tom instructed. A few times during the ride I wanted to close my eyes, but I didn’t dare.
The hospital was being renovated and the old emergency room platform is now about as far away from the Cath Lab as you can get. Tom, pushing the gurney, jogged. The images over my head were beginning to make me motion sick, so I said, “Can I close my eyes a sec—”
Soon enough we were in the cath lab, where a team of jolly healthcare professionals went to work on me immediately, preparing me for the cardiac catheterization procedure. With the music of Eric Clapton playing in the background, a smiling doctor leaned over and said, "How are you doing, Mr. Thorne?"
"I have to tell you," I said, "I'm starting to get kind of scared."
He shook his head. "No need of that now sir, we have you." At that, my heart stopped again.
Dr. Tony Pizzo catheterized me, placed a stent in my Left Anterior Descending artery (LAD) which, in fact, was 100% blocked, and my heart spontaneously began beating again. When Dr. Pizzo noted that my heart responded quite favorably to the first stent, he examined the rest of my heart and opted to place a stent in the Right Coronary Artery (RCA), which was about 80% blocked. An echocardiogram a couple days later indicated no damage to my heart, which was a relief. Unfortunately, I do have some lingering cognitive matters, and this is over a year out.
Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) is a traumatic event and a confusing systemic upheaval from which to survive. Home from the hospital, I found myself wandering around the house uttering, “I don’t know,” over and over again. I lay in the recliner and looked around. I don’t need a single thing in this house is what I concluded. On occasion, I was suspicious that another soul had snuck into my being while I was out. That’s not a wild imagination at work; there are such people who believe in so-called "step-ins" or “occupiers” during traumatic mental, physical or emotional times.
Because I didn’t feel exactly as I did before. When I looked at my life, it appeared askew, like the villain’s hideout in the old Batman TV series. I likened it to the situation when your kid asks you to look after his goldfish while he goes to summer camp, but you forget and the fish dies so you have to go to the pet store to find a doppelganger. Your son comes home from camp and peers into the tank to see “his” goldfish, yet there is something curious about it. Yes, it looks like his old fish, and sure he looks okay, but the lad can’t shake the feeling that something’s different. That is how I looked at my life post-SCA.
Okay, I was on a cocktail of drugs, so that has to be factored in. But as the days passed I began to appreciate the gravity of what had happened to me. That word, “gravity,” (when used in this case) is rooted in the word “grave”. I use it here purposely because I was this close to the end. That’s the truth, and it created the quagmire that leads to all the pacing and muttering, the urge to minimize and the compulsion to simplify.
People kept telling me how lucky I was, but I didn’t buy it, not at first. Seriously, after watching movies and television for 60 years, I figured nearly everybody survives SCA, so me walking around doing my daily routines wasn’t remarkable to me, not at first.
But of course, my assumption was way off. Only about 10% of those who suffer SCA actually survive, and believe me that is only because a very narrow and spontaneous set of circumstances occurred immediately after the arrest. (When you add in the Widowmaker, my chances were half that, at best). To some it seems like divine intervention; to others, it’s simply a fortunate coincidence. Either way, survival from SCA requires 1) a bystander who, 2) knows CPR, 3) an available Automatic External Defibrillator (AED), and 4) a short trip to the hospital. Subtract any of these four elements and you die. Period.
But I did make it, which inspires the question, “Why me?” Some people told me it just wasn’t “your time,” or that, “God wasn’t finished with you/ready for you yet.” Some people actually believe that there is an appointed last day for each of us. Without editorializing something people call “The Afterlife,” I’ll go on record as saying I was simply very lucky to be where I was when it all went down. After all, the day before I drove the long, lonesome trek to our other house in the middle of Florida and could have easily been afflicted then. The result would have been entirely different.
So…believe what you will. If there is anything I learned from this particular trauma, it is that most of what other people do or say is none of my business. How you wish to live your life, how you deal with the stressors and challenges we all face, is entirely up to you so long as you don’t a) try to impose your method on me or b) discriminate against me because I don’t believe as you.
As the days passed, I was possessed by an irresistible desire to speak with someone who’d also survived. My wife, family and friends all said encouraging things, and did their best to empathize. As important and welcome as that support is, it cannot substitute for speaking to one who’s been there, at least in my mind. I felt there existed an unspoken language, and I needed to be able to communicate with someone who implicitly understood, a youknowwhatImean kind of thing.
No longer tuned in to social media, I scouted the internet, but found little to assist me. Eventually, I contacted a woman with the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, and we spoke on the phone for an hour or so. I came away from that call with a bit of knowledge about SCA’s in general, as well as the fact that this survivor’s story did not resemble mine in any way, and occurred over twenty years ago. Her cardiac arrest wasn’t caused by a heart attack at all. In fact, some 30% of those whose hearts stop still don’t know why, and of the remaining 70%, over half of those are not as the result of a heart attack. Many of them end up with an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD, a ‘pacemaker’) to protect them from future events. People like me, who have heart attacks that lead to SCA, frequently do so in their sleep. This reality means that those folks never had a chance to be resuscitated.
Which means they never got to experience the multiple broken bones and frayed tendons and ligaments (from the AED shock). Resuscitation does that. I told you before that Deli was working on me in a cramped ambulance, and I was reclined on the “coach”, which is not flat but inclined these days. This position resulted in a bad angle for Deli, but she kept going anyway. I received eleven fractures, mostly to ribs but also my scapula, my C6 vertebrae and sternum. My left shoulder was in agony to the point where I couldn’t raise my arm to wash my hair or dry my body with a towel. After three months of this, I went to my chiropractor, who found that my shoulder was separated and out of socket, which he replaced.
I found it nearly impossible to find a position in which I could get comfortable enough to sleep, and the combination of the drugs, significant dietary changes and the lack of exercise caused serious constipation that only caused more pain. For weeks, I had difficulty swallowing, and choked to the point of nearly requiring the Heimlich maneuver on more than one occasion. After a little over a year, I am still in pain and have numbness and tingling in my right arm. Both arms have limited movement and my head regularly aches from the pressure. I’m a barber and I had to go back to work only a few days after my event; using my arms in the repetitive motions of a barber slowed my recovery greatly.
You’re thinking: But at least you’re alive. And that’s true, but there were more than a few times in the past year when I wasn’t sure I should be alive or, in constant agony, whether I wanted to be. Throughout it all, I had an absolute burning need to talk to other survivors.
I learned about the Citizen CPR Summit sometime in the spring of 2019. To be held in Seattle in December, the summit was touted as the gathering of industry professionals, first responders and survivors I had craved. I so wanted to go, but my recovery had not been linear and I surmised that a long airliner trip would not be beneficial to that recovery. Not only that, but my work performance was off by a decent percentage, which means I didn’t have the income I usually have. Missing another week of work was irresponsible, yet I signed Helen and myself up for the Summit anyway. I felt like I just had to be there.
In October of 2019, I received an email from Kate McGrath, the Executive Vice President of WorldPoint, a provider of training and training aids and supplies for intercessory cardiac professionals, and the prime sponsor for the Summit. The email was addressed to all the attending survivors, and detailed the program for the Summit’s first night’s activities. I found myself more compelled to attend after reading the email, but I was in agony and really struggling with the finances. I wrote back to Ms. McGrath, indicating that we’d not be able to attend after all.
Kate McGrath is a very cool person. Dedicated to the saving of lives of cardiac patients, Kate possesses a keen understanding of the meaning of surviving, and how SCA survivors represent the happy outcome virtually all of the Summit’s corporate attendees celebrate. Without survivors, these companies don’t really have a product—or a business. Kate wrote back, issued her disappointment but then posited that if she could arrange some financial assistance, could we come then? I told her I’d think about it, but I remained skeptical about the impact of a long airliner trip on my recovery.
Then, in early November, something remarkable happened: I woke up with no fatigue and very little pain and actually felt good. About that time, Kate wrote back and informed me that WorldPoint would like to sponsor us, and I was thrilled to be able to go! No, I didn’t like the idea of taking charity from these folks, but Kate insisted that they sponsor at least one person each year, and that this year, Helen and I were chosen. I cried. In fact, I cried an awful lot in 2019…
I’ve been a pilot for the greater portion of my life, but I sincerely despise flying commercial. Everything about it—except for the expeditious trip—I hate. I mucked through it and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the morning sun reflecting off the snow-covered Rockies and Mount Rainier, the Tillikum of The Cascades, standing watch like a shepherd.
Another reward was meeting a group of very special people, including some 50 other survivors. We took a tour of a company called Stryker, a manufacturer of AED units and other equipment designed to save lives. December 12 is my cardiac anniversary date, so I was at the Summit for my first “re-birthday,” and the other survivors celebrated that. It was very special, all of it. They asked me to rejoin Facebook so that I could participate in the online group, “Sudden Cardiac Arrest Survivors”. I didn’t want to be on Facebook anymore, having broken up with it on bad terms some five years earlier. But, I reasoned, this was for a good cause and I could limit my time online, easily.
Back home I built a new Facebook account, joined the group and began to see the posts of new survivors and their loved ones, people with the same fears, questions and uncertainties I myself had just a year earlier. Many of the posters’ stories were unrelated to my case, since they did not involve heart attack, but I read them and offered what I could.
However, in the process I discovered I was becoming less and less able to read the stories without revisiting my own event—which was rapidly becoming something I no longer wished to do. So much in my own world continually reminds me of my heart attack and SCA and, as I see it, exposes and affirms the weakness in me that brought me to the place where my heart stopped. After years of silently razzing my siblings for having heart disease, my own weak heart nearly ended my life. All I wanted to do was forget it ever happened.
I was in a conundrum. Frankly, I knew I could no longer participate in the group, or even be a member. That said, I felt guilty, a guy with my CV and experience not able to be an advocate for the very people who reached out to me in my time of abject need. I tried. I wrote several emails and sent a number of text messages to the super volunteers who keep the various SCA websites going, asking to be assigned a task or a chore or something I could to do help. Sadly, I received no reply from anybody. The catch-22 is that I’m sure I received no response because they are so deeply in need of assistance.
But that’s when I knew I couldn’t do what they wanted me to. I couldn’t keep reliving my cardiac event, over and over, in an effort to convince people to learn CPR or how to use an AED. Or to influence legislation or fundraise. I couldn’t be a Sudden Cardiac Arrest Survivor anymore.
Of course, I will always be an SCA survivor; that’s a fact. What I’m saying is I no longer wished to be thought of as an SCA survivor. I had to move on. The urge to leave this traumatic event in my past consumed me. I reasoned that I had made significant lifestyle changes, had the intercessory catheterization, lost weight and “fixed” what was broken. A lot of that is true, and yet I felt like I’d let a lot of people down. Furthermore, after pining for the chance to meet with and talk to survivors, I was rather astonished how effortlessly that impulse left me once I had achieved that goal.
I wrote a heartfelt post for the group, thanked the members for allowing me to join, but made it clear that I couldn’t stay mired in that place. I told them that this was in no way a criticism of those who hang on to it, who use it to propel them on their journey or those who have made a decision to use their experience to give back, to help save others. And I told them I would always remember those who saved my life, but I had to move on.
A few in the group wrote to me, telling me they understood, wished me good luck.
I had planned to write a book about all this, the book I wished I’d had after my SCA. But now I’m not so inclined. Not saying I won’t ever do that, just that now, still in the midst of what is becoming a lengthy recovery, I can’t imagine anything but getting as far away from my cardiac arrest as possible. I knew the longer I allowed it to occupy such a large part of my consciousness, the more I would continue to question my own existence and regale myself for being careless with my health. I knew I had to put it in the past or it would eventually consume me, one way or another.
To some, that makes no sense. To me, there is no choice.
Then this happened: I was alone at our place in Avon Park, a little agricultural town in south-central Florida, working on a song I was writing. I just couldn't get the third verse to say what I wanted, so I went to our bed to lay down. The time was about 2:00 A.M. In the quiet, I listened as a faraway train rapidly approached our peaceful town, came flying through and careened its way south, to Miami maybe. After a while, all was quiet again. In the dark I said aloud, “I want to live in a town where the train comes through every night.” As soon as the words left my mouth, their poetry fell on my ear. That’s a lyric, I thought.
So I got up, grabbed the guitar and began funneling the words that were coming to my mind and out of my mouth onto a page. In 30 minutes, I had the song written, but it needed a title. I thought about that. Each verse begins with the line, “I want to live in a town where…” Suddenly, I beamed at the realization that the title was obviously, “I Want To Live.”
And I realized, for the first time in over a year, that I really did.