He used CPR in an emergency – then he became the emergency

By American Heart Association News

Joe Farrell, a cardiac arrest survivor, with his wife Edie at the State of the Future of Resuscitation Conference in Oakland, California. (Photo courtesy of Joe Farrell)
Cardiac arrest survivor Joe Farrell with his wife, Edie. (Photo courtesy of Joe Farrell)

Joe Farrell went to retrieve an errant golf ball when he came upon another player on the ground not breathing. The man's golfing partner was attempting CPR but not performing it properly.

Joe, a physical therapist, took over. He made sure 911 was called before starting chest compressions. Paramedics arrived and revived the man after several shocks from an automated external defibrillator.

"It was absolutely a big moment in my life and a very humbling event," Joe said.

He thought at the time that if he ever went into cardiac arrest, he hoped to be lucky enough to have someone nearby who could perform CPR on him. He knew CPR, especially if administered quickly, can double or triple a person's chance of survival.

A year later, Joe was that lucky.

Then 56, Joe was talking with fellow physical therapists during a luncheon when he lost consciousness and stopped breathing.

One of the men called 911 and started chest compressions while Joe's wife, Edie, also a physical therapist, looked on terrified.

Paramedics quickly arrived with an AED. It took seven shocks to restore Joe's heart rhythm.

As they were entering the emergency room, Joe's heart stopped again. The AED again revived him.

Joe was put into an induced coma for three days and underwent hypothermia for 24 hours to minimize any brain damage. Edie feared she would lose her husband of 30 years. Making the situation even more stressful, she felt the cardiologist assigned to them was inattentive. He didn't even look at her when he spoke.

"I happened to know that the son of a friend was a cardiologist and I begged him to take Joe on as a patient," Edie said. "He is the one who said that Joe should not be allowed to leave the hospital until he had an ICD."

The friend's son indeed took over as the cardiologist and Joe received an ICD, or implantable cardioverter defibrillator. The battery-powered device was placed under Joe's skin to track his heart rate. If it detects a dangerous heart rhythm, it delivers an electric shock.

Doctors later determined a medication side effect – low potassium – had caused his cardiac arrest.

While recuperating at home, Joe felt secure his ICD would protect him. Still, he feared another cardiac arrest.

He cut back on his work hours to help relieve stress. But what really brought Joe relief was a newfound purpose: spreading the word about cardiac arrest, CPR training and the use of defibrillators.

There are more than 356,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests annually in the U.S., with nearly 90 percent of them fatal.

Edie joined him in his volunteer work, though reluctantly at first. His cardiac arrest was something she wanted to put behind her.

"It used to be that every time I talked about it, I started crying," she said. "But then I turned a corner. I saw that I could be proactive and empower people to learn CPR and to use an AED."

Within a couple of months of Joe's cardiac arrest in 2008, he and Edie became certified CPR instructors through the American Heart Association and joined the Heart Safe Committee of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District in California. They estimate that since then, the group has taught more than 30,000 people how to perform Hands-Only CPR and use an AED.

Three years ago, Joe had his ICD replaced, a routine procedure when the battery becomes depleted.

"I almost wasn't going to because I never get shocked," he said.

That changed last year, a few days after the couple returned from a cruise in Antarctica.

While Joe was asleep, the shock registered on the sensor of his device. The information was sent to his cardiologist. The doctor called the next day to tell Joe what happened. He hadn't felt a thing.

But it renewed his fear and anxiety.

"It just comes and goes," Joe said.

He and Edie, who now live in Nevada, continue to travel. They visited Vietnam and Cambodia earlier this year. They occasionally speak about cardiac arrest at medical gatherings, where Edie reminds doctors that families are as important as patients.

Joe Farrell and his wife Edie in Vietnam earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Joe Farrell)
Joe Farrell and his wife Edie in Vietnam earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Joe Farrell)

"When people talk about survivors, they often forget it was the family members that had all the stress, fear and anxiety in the beginning, dealing with the doctors, hospitals and the unknown," she said. "And after that, we're often the caregivers."

Joe also serves on the board of directors of the PulsePoint Foundation and the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation, which are currently promoting Sudden Cardiac Arrest Month.

"Edie and I want to prevent needless death by training more people in CPR and defibrillation," he said. "We're having more and more survivors now becoming advocates and getting involved. It's making a difference."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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