Cardiac arrest survivor thanks paramedics who saved his life

By Hannah Leone
The Beacon-News

AURORA, Ill. — Joking around with family and firefighters, Dan Heineman of Aurora doesn't look like someone whose heart quit on him a few weeks ago.

Aurora Fire Department officials say they've had better results this year in getting people to resume breathing on their own again, amid regional changes in emergency protocol requiring paramedics to treat cardiac arrest patients for a half hour on site before moving them to a hospital.

Heineman, a 46-year-old mechanic, is one of their success stories.

Wearing a bright red Blackhawks sweatshirt and royal blue Cubs cap, Heineman, whose brother is a firefighter in another city, visited Aurora's Station 3 on the city's West Side to meet and thank those he credits with "a second chance at life."

"I'm indebted to these guys," Heineman said. "It's pretty emotional."

When Heineman went into cardiac arrest on a Friday evening, there had been warning signs. A couple weeks prior, he'd had pain in his jaw. Knowing what that could mean, he went to a doctor to get it checked out, said his wife, Francesca Heineman. But an electrocardiogram test, commonly referred to as an EKG, showed he wasn't having a heart attack then, and they went back home.

On April 21, Heineman came home from work and didn't feel well, he said. The pain was back, and he was nauseous, Francesca said. He couldn't get comfortable and ended up on the couch, with his head in Francesca's lap.

That's the last thing Heineman remembers before waking up in an ambulance.

While Heineman was out, Francesca noticed him gasping for air and had a feeling it was a heart attack, so she called for their 18-year-old son Stephen, who was upstairs in his room. Stephen quickly saw what was happening and dialed 911. A senior at West Aurora High School, Stephen knew CPR from gym class, but didn't end up using it.

"It all happened so fast," Stephen said.

During a press conference Tuesday at the fire station, Aurora Fire Chief Gary Krienitz congratulated Stephen for his actions.

"Great job calling 911 man," Krienitz said.

Within minutes, shortly after 9 p.m., Medic 3 and Engine 3 brought firefighters and paramedics to the Heinemans' home. His face was blue and his pulse was undetectable, so they hooked him up to a monitor, which showed a slow and unsustainable heart rhythm, said paramedic Michael Chomiak. Out came the defibrillator.

"We shocked him just like you see in the movies," Chomiak said.

When Heineman started breathing on his own, they moved him into the ambulance, where he regained consciousness.

"They saved my husband's life," Francesca said.

Thankful for his continuing recovery, Heineman said he's making important changes to his lifestyle such as exercising and -- the hardest part, he said -- eating healthier.

Reconnecting with someone they've saved is a rare opportunity, Chomiak said.

For reasons they can't explain, the fire department has seen a lot of CPR calls this year, said Fire Marshal Javan Cross. As of May 4, the department had handled 47 such calls, compared with 90 for all of 2016, said EMS Battalion Chief James Rufer. While the fire department doesn't know what happens to patients once they are transferred to the care of a hospital, they do track "return of spontaneous circulation," which generally means a patient showed signs of breathing on their own again, Cross explained.

Last year, Aurora's return of circulation rate was 26 percent, Rufer said. This year, it's improved to 33 percent, he said.

As one factor in that increase, Rufer and Cross pointed to mandated protocols handed down earlier this year by the Southern Fox Valley Emergency Medical Service System, which includes Aurora.

In a news release introducing the 30-minute rule, Krienitz quoted American Heart Association statistics, saying 70 percent of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests happen in residential settings, 90 percent of people who experience cardiac arrest outside of hospitals don't recover, and 39 percent of such people get the immediate help they need before professionals arrive.

"Our paramedics perform many of the same life-saving procedures on scene that the emergency room staff delivers in a hospital," Krienitz said. "The new policy aims at assuring the patient gets 30 minutes of uninterrupted CPR as soon as possible, which increases the chance of survival and recovery."

In the meantime, officials repeated Tuesday, early CPR can make the biggest difference. Throughout the event, fire officials stressed the importance of everyone learning CPR.

Heineman doesn't know CPR. Now, however, he said he would like to learn.

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