Back in the Gym After a Heart Attack
December 06, 2021
Tuesday, May 15, started out like any other day for James DeMaria, 50, of New City, New York.
James was coaching a CrossFit class, one of his favorite activities that he had been doing for the past nine years, before his morning turned tragic.
“I had just finished coaching a 5:30 a.m. class,” James says. “Right after our workout, I told everyone to catch their breath and that I was going to sit down, change my sneakers and write down their scores. I woke up in the hospital two days later.”
James suffered from sudden cardiac arrest, a condition in which the heart suddenly stops beating and blood stops flowing to the brain and the rest of the body.
Hope Through Uncertainty
Cardiac arrest is a life-threatening emergency that, without immediate treatment, can lead to death. Nearly 90 percent of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests are fatal, according to the American Heart Association’s Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics 2018 Update.
“I just passed out on the floor. I didn’t feel any pain,” James explains. “My athletes thought I was joking around because I’m kind of a clown. But they quickly realized I wasn’t playing, and one of the guys, Christian, gave me CPR.”
James, a nurse for 21 years, was the only person who knew how to use the gym’s automated external defibrillator (AED). His athletes immediately called the Park Ridge police, located a quarter of a mile down the road from the gym. He was later told that he was shocked twice.
James was immediately taken by ambulance to the emergency department at Pascack Valley Medical Center. Emergency Department Physician Joseph Diorio, M.D., quickly assessed him and performed therapeutic hypothermia, a cooling therapy that lowers the patient’s body temperature from 98 degrees Fahrenheit to 89–93 degrees. He was then transferred to the ICU where the treatment was completed under the care of Manar Al Asad, M.D.
“They didn’t know if my brain was deprived of oxygen. If you lower the body temperature and slow down the metabolism, it will preserve brain function,” says James, the first patient to receive this type of treatment at Pascack Valley. “The team chilled my body down to about 91 degrees for about 22 hours, and they woke me up two days later.”
James’ wife was at his side when he woke up, along with a neurologist and several team members. “They didn’t know what type of brain function I had at that point,” he says. “I had no idea what happened and I remember being really cold and shivering. The neurologist came over to me and told me what happened. He asked a lot of questions and I answered everything appropriately. Everyone quickly learned that I was my normal self.”
According to the American Heart Association, the majority of cardiac arrest survivors have some degree of brain injury and impaired consciousness. James survived cardiac arrest with no physical or mental deficits.
A ‘Truly Miraculous Recovery’
James stayed another day at Pascack Valley before he was transferred to Hackensack University Medical Center, where he underwent cardiac catheterization and had a stent placed in one of his arteries. He was fitted for an external defibrillator before returning home the following Monday, less than a week after he was admitted.
The majority of cardiac arrest victims don’t survive to be discharged from the hospital. “My recovery is truly miraculous,” James says.
The day after he came home from the hospital, he visited the Park Ridge police to thank them for their efforts. He also returned to Pascack Valley to visit with the Emergency Department and ICU. “I’m alive because of the actions of so many in the community,” he says.
In the months following, James was to rest and recover at home. “Aside from the physical setbacks, it was a really mentally trying experience,” he says. “For me, I’m invincible. You can’t beat me and it’s always pedal to the metal.”
James, a drummer for a traveling metal band, slowly began to play the drums again for his rehab. “Playing the drums really helped me. Drumming is really physically demanding. I knew I had gigs coming up and needed to get to a certain level to play,” he says.
After spending the summer resting and slowly building back his strength, James was cleared by his cardiologist in August. The following month, he was back to coaching CrossFit five days a week, lifting weights and playing with his band.
As James recalls the events of his cardiac arrest and recovery, he speaks words of gratitude for the team at Pascack Valley.
“I was lucky enough to have a team that really took hold of a situation. I’m thankful for forward-thinking people,” he says. “These individuals were instrumental. Like every great nurse, they were a lot like marines: They adapted, they improvised and they overcame.”
Learn more about the Emergency Department at Pascack Valley Medical Center.
American Heart Association
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