Gary's Story: Flatline

Updated:Jun 20,2011

Arrhythmia Personal Story Photo Gary Terry of Fort Worth, Texas, may be the only man outside Hollywood who has watched a video of himself flatlining. And he's certainly the only man who knows that his own 18-year volunteer efforts for the American Heart Association saved his life. It's a story that sends chills down your spine and supports the idea that there are no coincidences.

Eighteen years ago, Gary was a young, healthy man, but his parents had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. He wanted to learn all that he could, get involved and do something for his parents and for others who suffered from heart disease.

Gary was such a successful volunteer that he moved quickly from the local to the state level, where he served as president of the Texas Affiliate. His life began to change in 1990 when he had a heart attack. "I played football all through high school and college. At the time of my heart attack, I had 9 percent body fat and worked out all the time. I could work hard all day, drink hard at night and get right back to work the next day. I was burning the candle at all three ends.";

The heart attack got his attention right away, but it wasn't long before he slipped back to the point where he was eating an unhealthy diet, not working out, working too much and gaining weight. Over the 12 years after the heart attack, he gained about 100 pounds, finally tipping the scale at 360. Meanwhile, his work for the American Heart Association had become focused on the process of getting automated external defibrillators (AEDs) into public places.

Most people who suddenly collapse with a heart problem are experiencing ventricular fibrillation (VF). VF is an abnormal, chaotic heart rhythm that prevents the heart from pumping blood. It's responsible for about 80 percent to 90 percent of all sudden cardiac arrests. The quickest way to stop VF is cardiac defibrillation — an emergency procedure that delivers an electric shock to the heart with a defibrillator. You've seen it on television shows when a doctor uses the paddles to try to revive someone.

A victim must be defibrillated quickly to stop VF and allow a normal heart rhythm to resume. The sooner the defibrillation with an AED, the better. If defibrillation is provided within the first five minutes of a cardiac arrest, the odds are about 50–50 that you can save the victim's life. But with each passing minute, the chance of successful resuscitation is reduced by 7 percent to 10 percent. After only 10 minutes, there's very little chance of successful rescue.

Now imagine that you or your loved one works on the 37th floor of a high rise, or is in a stadium with 60,000 screaming fans or is standing in an airport security line when wham — cardiac arrest strikes. How important would an available AED and trained personnel be then? Gary Terry knows. He suffered sudden cardiac arrest while standing in line at the Austin (Texas) International Airport. Only eight months earlier he had led efforts that convinced airport managers to install AEDs and train security personnel to use them properly.

"Thanks to the efforts of the American Heart Association, which I led, Andy McKinney, airport policeman, started doing CPR on me in less than a minute. When the AED got there, I took the first shock and my heart started beating in 4 minutes and 19 seconds. It took 18 minutes to get a full rhythm so they could transport me to the hospital. A camera was taping the gate where I fell, and the AED they used to revive me had recorded audio. You can hear the people saying, "No pulse. No pulse.' Then I flatlined and someone says, 'Move aside, we're going to shock. No pulse. No pulse. Shock again. We're losing him. I think he's gone. No pulse.'

"I've watched that tape only one time. That was enough. I can tell you, if I hadn't already had a heart attack, I would have had one watching that tape. I think I was the fifth person in those eight months whose life had been saved by the quick response — the CPR, the AED and the proper procedures. And it is no coincidence that I was the very person to lead the team to get that chain of survival in place in that airport. I am on a mission from God, and I want everyone to know that the Lord saved my life so I could work for others."

It's no wonder that Gary is passionate about his work — the work of the American Heart Association. “I want people, including physicians, to think about the human side of heart disease — about all of the pain that's involved. I think about my wife who didn't know where I was when I didn't come home — all the frantic phone calls trying to find me — the hours upon hours of waiting to see if I would live. My granddaughter, crying and wanting desperately to get to the hospital to see me one more time in case I didn't live. In the eight days that I was in the hospital, I got more than 800 cards and letters. Every one of those people felt pain for the moment that they were writing that card.

"Managers responsible for places where masses of people gather need to get the chain of survival going — teach CPR to the employees, get AEDs in place and know what to do like those wonderful folks in the Austin airport. And each of us needs to take responsibility for our health. Eat right. Get plenty of exercise. Quit smoking. Take your medications properly. Get the stress out of your life. We can do this if we work together. We can decrease disability and death from heart disease and stroke if we just put our hearts and minds to it."

Six weeks after Gary collapsed in the floor of the airport, he was in Austin again. He went back to the gate where he had fallen. The man who started the CPR was there and asked if he could hug Gary's neck. "We hugged and we cried and we laughed and I thanked him. As I was walking away, the supervisor said that my appearance had meant so much to the folks who worked there. Prior to my collapse, their job seemed meaningless and mundane. 'Since they saved your life, they have a new commitment to their jobs — they see how important they really are. They see things in a much different light now.'"

Gary's story is the stuff that movies are made of. But it was real life to him, and it's real life to the millions of Americans who are struck with sudden cardiac arrest every year. Most of them aren't as fortunate as Gary and don't have the happy ending. Tomorrow, it could be you or someone you love.

It's time to get involved and make sure that the chain of survival is in place when a cardiovascular emergency happens. First, educate yourself on what you can do to keep your heart healthy. Develop a relationship with your physician and make certain that you're tested for high blood pressure and cholesterol. Read the labels on the food you eat and make heart-healthy choices. Get up and get moving — 30 minutes a day on most or all days of the week can do wonders for your heart.

Help make the chain of survival available to you and your loved ones wherever you go. You can make a difference by telling your legislators that heart and stroke issues are important. Make your opinion known by contacting your local politicians and congressional representatives by mail, phone or e-mail. Meet with the managers of high-rise buildings, stadiums and other public gathering places and urge them to install AEDs and train staff to use them. Take a CPR course and be ready to use CPR in an emergency.

The American Heart Association is working to place AEDs in the hands of trained, nontraditional rescuers. These include police, security guards and family members of patients at high risk for cardiac arrest. Public access defibrillation (PAD) programs place AEDs in homes, police cars, worksites and public gathering places under the supervision of licensed physicians. AED rescuers must be trained in CPR and in how to use an AED. When AEDs are readily available, rescuers can provide defibrillation within the first few minutes of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. This can dramatically increase the victim's chances of survival.

Gary Terry hopes that his story can help save lives by educating readers on the need for AEDs in public places and by encouraging heart-healthy lifestyles and attitudes. Gary is available to share his story with your group. Please contact the Fort Worth office of the American Heart Association for more information at (817) 315-5000.


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