An electrical problem
Steve Ryan, a software engineer for the Southeastern National Tuberculosis Center in the UF College of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine, had experienced sudden cardiac arrest.
Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Month, recognized annually in October, is a time to reflect on the importance of this medical event that impacts more than 350,000 Americans each year and has a mortality rate between 70% and 90%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Elizabeth Warren, A.D.N., R.N., RCIS, UF Health STEMI coordinator, said sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating — an event that can be caused by any number of factors.
Sudden cardiac arrest can be thought of as an electrical issue with the heart, she said, which is why the heart is shocked to restore its order. This is different from a heart attack, a “plumbing” problem that is usually caused by a blockage.
Years prior to his sudden cardiac arrest, Ryan was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease that causes heart ventricles to stretch so they can’t pump blood as well. Physicians explained this could have been a contributing factor to his experience last spring.
PulsePoint: An important local CPR resource
For those who recover from cardiac arrest, Warren said, the risk of brain damage is very high. She said bystander CPR, like the action Kaitlin took, is the biggest contributing factor to survival after sudden cardiac arrest outside a hospital.
“It’s crucial,” Warren said. “It gives the patient a much better chance of a full recovery or survival, and it’s dependent on what happens before medical help ever arrives.”
Residents in Alachua and other select counties throughout Florida can download PulsePoint, a free mobile app available in areas nationwide that alerts nearby bystanders to the need for hands-only CPR in a public place before emergency services arrive on scene.
Warren said Alachua County has a higher bystander CPR rate than the national level, about 42% locally, compared with 23% nationally. In Seattle, the rates of bystander CPR are above 80%.
“That’s where we want to be, where everyone has that awareness and knows that it’s what you do automatically in that situation, the same way you know to tie your shoelaces when putting shoes on,” Warren said.
UF Health offers CPR training for housestaff, and other resources are available to UF students and residents in the community.
After Ryan’s heart began beating again, he was taken to a nearby hospital and placed in a medically induced coma for three days while he stabilized.
He woke up the day of Kaitlin’s 16th birthday, completely unaware of what had taken place.
“One minute I was on the golf course, and the next I woke up in a hospital,” said Ryan, who remained in the hospital for about another week, talking with his family on FaceTime due to visitor restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
When reflecting on that warm April day, Ryan remembered feeling fatigued while working outside trimming bushes before going golfing, but he didn’t experience any of the common symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest, including increased heart rate, dizziness and memory loss. Ryan said he was impressed by the quick thinking of his middle daughter and her ability to step up and help.
“I’m amazed that she was able to compose herself, and I’m proud of her for fighting through her fears and doing what needed to be done,” he said.
Upon making a complete recovery, he now has an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, which works the same way an AED does from inside your body.
Warren said it’s used to shock a disorganized heart that needs a burst of energy to get back in order. Now Ryan’s ICD will be able to do that automatically when an abnormality in his heart rhythm is detected.
“It gives me huge peace of mind to know that my ICD will be able to interrupt a dangerously fast hearth rhythm, if it happens again,” he said.
Getting the word out
Following Ryan’s hospitalization, he and his family wanted to champion the importance of CPR and raise awareness for sudden cardiac arrest in their area.
“Prior to this, I never realized how deadly sudden cardiac arrest is,” said Kaitlin, now 17.
She and her father have filmed public service announcements that will be shared in Hillsborough County schools as high school students learn CPR and first aid — a new statewide requirement that passed earlier this year.
Kaitlin also decided to combine her love for golf with her passion to raise awareness of the issue by creating the Chip in for Sudden Cardiac Arrest charity golf tournament. The effort raised $31,000 for the American Heart Association and Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation. Additionally, more than 80 people learned CPR from medical teams at the event.
“It may be a small number,” she said. “But that’s 80 more people who are ready to help when someone is in need.”