Coming Back From Cardiac Arrest

August 22, 2019

Next to the storage facility where Jim Duey used to work, not far from where he lives, stands a windmill. It measures 140 feet from the ground to the platform, another 30 or so feet to the tip of a blade. Jim knows this because he dreams of being able to climb it one day.

“I’ve already counted the rungs and measured the spacing,” says Jim, 61. “It would be tough.”

Jim dreams of reaching the platform and holding a sign that reads, “Thank you, Dr. Okere and Dr. Karam!”—that is Arthur Okere, M.D., his surgeon who performed the initial procedure on his heart, and Edmund Karam, M.D., who placed his defibrillator after surgery and rehabilitation. “Dr. Okere saved my life, and Dr. Karam gave it back to me,” Jim says.

‘All You Can Do Is Pray’

All of Jim’s life, he has been a hard worker, to say the least. “The harder the work, the better,” he says. “They used to call me a machine because I could just go and go and go.”

Working as a stocker at a pet supply store, Jim would “throw around 40-pound bags like it was nothing.” But in late 2016, he noticed a significant dip in his energy level. There was a tiredness that wasn’t there before and a strange feeling in his chest. On December 5, as that feeling became an intense pain, Jim laid down on the floor of his Brick, New Jersey, apartment to find relief.

But when he tried to get back up, he couldn’t.

Realizing something was seriously wrong, he called 9-1-1. He also texted his friend Rob to come over.

When the paramedics reached Jim, he was in cardiac arrest and ventricular fibrillation, a deadly rhythm disturbance brought on, in his case, by a massive heart attack. His heart hadn’t completely stopped, but it was reduced to a quivering muscle, unable to pump blood around the body.

The paramedics used a defibrillator to shock his heart back into a normal rhythm, only for Jim to slip back into cardiac arrest. Another ambulance showed up. Then another.

For more than an hour, paramedics worked on Jim, but they were stuck in a gut-wrenching cycle: cardiac arrest, defibrillation, resuscitation, repeat.

At one point, Rob left the room because he couldn’t bear to watch anymore. He asked one of the paramedics about the situation. “All you can do is pray,” the paramedic replied.

Clinging to life, Jim was taken by ambulance to Ocean Medical Center. His fight was just beginning.

Never Give Up

Dr. Okere, an interventional cardiologist, was at home when he got the call. He rushed to the hospital to find a man in dire shape.

Jim was in cardiogenic shock and on a ventilator. When he suffered further cardiac arrest in the hospital, Dr. Okere resuscitated him.

“I had pretty much everyone saying, ‘We don’t think he’s going to make it,’” Dr. Okere says.

But Dr. Okere was not ready to give up, and he moved Jim to Ocean’s state-of-the-art Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory, where he opened Jim’s artery and implanted a stent.

“The only thing that would change his fate was opening up that artery,” Dr. Okere says.

During the procedure, Dr. Okere learned the true severity of Jim’s massive heart attack: 100 percent blockage of the left anterior descending artery, also known as a “widowmaker” heart attack.

The procedure was a turning point, but Jim still had a long road ahead of him. Because his brain was starved of oxygen during several episodes of cardiac arrest, he was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and underwent hypothermia protocol. The treatment cools the body, allowing it to divert all resources and energy to preserve brain function.

Jim had further setbacks in the ICU, but with Dr. Okere behind him, he pulled through. “We want every patient to believe that no matter the case, we are fighting for them,” Dr. Okere says. “That’s what drives me.”

Climbing Back to Life

Recovery was a long road. Taking a shower was exhausting. A short walk required a four-hour nap to recover. But for a man who wasn’t expected to survive, much less be able to get out of bed or a wheelchair, these basic activities were remarkable.

When Jim arrived at his first session at Hackensack Meridian Health Nursing and Rehabilitation in Brick, the nurse couldn’t believe her eyes. She looked at Jim and then back down at his patient record and all he had endured.

“She said, ‘Are you Mr. Duey?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘There’s something wrong with the paperwork. This can’t be you,’” he recalls.

In typical fashion, Jim gave maximum effort and was released 10 days later. His motivation was to get his ejection fraction (the percentage of blood pumped out of the ventricles with each contraction — a measure of heart function) to a level where he wouldn’t need a defibrillator implant. Unfortunately he just missed the target. A few months later, Dr. Karam placed the implant at Jersey Shore University Medical Center to protect against abnormal rhythms.

“The care I got was phenomenal,” Jim says. “I don’t think they could have been any better.”

Today, Jim is back at work. He doesn’t have the same strength or stamina as before, but for a man with his unshakable work ethic, that just means there’s room for improvement.

Discover tips for lowering your risk of heart disease.

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Dr. Okere practices in Brick. To make an appointment, call 732-776-8500.

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.