By Denise Williams | News & Views
There was a time when William Gallagher, recent cardiac rehabilitation graduate, shrugged off his mortality with the nonchalance of someone who’s never actually faced death. “If I die, I die,” the 52-year-old, better known as “BJ,” was known to profess. But that was before he flat-lined. TWICE.
Only a small percentage of people who suffer cardiac arrest survive, with quick delivery of CPR becoming their saving grace. It’s a no-brainer that first responders and medical professionals – including CR professionals – will be equipped to respond under these circumstances. That fact wasn’t lost on the Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, resident, who today is grateful to have been just minutes from a local hospital when he realized he was in serious trouble.
Unexpected Turn of Events
The red flag started waving early in the day while BJ performed some routine tasks. Twice, as he walked a client’s dog through a community of steep hills and valleys, he experienced unusual tightness in his chest and was forced to stop and get his bearings. It happened again later as he took out some trash. All three times, BJ blamed the symptoms on jitters over his upcoming air travel. He had been commissioned to drive a car from Pennsylvania to Texas – a long, but enjoyable job for him – and, owing to his anxiety related to flying, he was already dreading the flight back. Convinced this unease was the source of his discomfort, BJ went to bed early, with plans to set off down the highway later that night.
The alarm woke him at 10:00 p.m., and he prepared to depart. “As soon as I picked up my bag, I got the tightness in my chest again,” BJ recalls. He left anyway – but he didn’t get far. With the pain escalating, it seemed best to postpone the journey until the next day. By the time he maneuvered his way home, however, he wasn’t certain he could make it from the car to inside the house. Instead, BJ made the crucial call to drive himself to the emergency department at Bryn Mawr Hospital, which was so close that it was visible from his bedroom window. The couple of minutes it took to get there cut close into his grace period, because within minutes of arrival, he flat-lined. The ED crew resuscitated him, but he flat-lined again almost immediately. They brought him back once more, snatching him from the probable doom of a ”widow-maker” event. It turned out the main cardiac artery was 99% clogged, a prognosis that proves fatal for most patients. “They told me only 12% survive that heart attack,” says BJ, solemnly aware that he likely would not be here today if not for the CPR performed by emergency staff. And if not for the warning light – not in the car, but in his head – that told him not to dare get on that highway ramp.
BJ heeded the warning, even though the idea that he could be having a cardiac event came as a something of a shock. While far from “gym rat” status, he had been a cross-country mover for more than 30 years. “That was a workout in itself,” BJ points out. “I wasn’t actually lifting weights, but I was carrying dressers, sofas and boxes up and down steps, sometimes 16 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. So, I got my cardio in and got my strength training in.” Besides being active, he also was never a big junk food junkie and maintained relatively good eating habits. What unhealthier habits he did have – like the tendency to drink heavily – he had successfully minimized over the past 5-6 years. What it all boiled down to, according to BJ, was family history: his dad, plagued by a host of medical comorbidities, suffered his first heart attack at just 51 years old. With that being his greatest risk factor, cardiologists were pleased with BJ’s rapid response to treatment (they placed a stent through his wrist and cleaned up the clogged artery). A day and a half later, he walked out of the hospital on his own; and, like many patients like himself, was subsequently referred to cardiac rehabilitation.
Although he had already started to soften his cavalier “If I die, I die” philosophy several years ago, leaving unhealthy behaviors in the past in order to improve his longevity, BJ says flat-lining gave him a whole new perspective on life. “I died, and I don’t want to die again!” he admits. “I’ve got like 25 more years. After that, if I need to go, I’ll go. But 50 is too young. I haven’t finished living my life yet.”
BJ’s committed to doing whatever it takes to “put both feet on the floor every day,” including using the motivation he got from cardiac rehab to maintain an active lifestyle and eat even healthier than before. He just wants to be around, he says, so that he can be of service to people who could use his help in this challenging world. That even includes maybe learning CPR himself, because this is a skill that is so important not just for the individuals who go about the business of saving lives every day but also for the regular citizen who one day might need to be the saving grace for someone in cardiac distress.
While forever grateful to the hospital personnel who cared for him the night he went into cardiac arrest – from the security guard who met him at the door to the medical professionals who worked on him – BJ knows a very different scenario could have unfolded if he had continued on to the highway instead of turning back and seeking care at the ED. In that case, today he might very well be thanking an ordinary passer-by with CPR knowledge for rescuing him. Or, tragically, if unable to get that help from anyone in the immediate vicinity, he likely wouldn’t be here to tell his story at all.
Pictured: BJ Gallagher, on a recent hike.