From responder to survivor, a life-saving reversal of roles
“It was a Saturday and I was down at a new home I’d purchased in Langton,” says ex-volunteer firefighter David Barnim. “I’d brought some furniture down and after unpacking and having dinner, I decided to go for a stroll down the street with my little pug.”
At 55 years old, Barnim felt in good health and he had good motivation to stay that way. In consideration of his family’s history of heart disease – his father’s life had been suddenly ended by a stroke at only 53 years old – Barnim ate well, kept active and didn’t smoke. Yet, after travelling only a few blocks on that cold February night, he suddenly became overwhelmed by a wave of illness unlike anything he’d experienced before.
“I just wanted to lie down right there in the street,” he says.
Scanning the neighbourhood for anyone he could call on for help only revealed darkened windows and vacant driveways. With effort, Barnim made his way home where he was able to call his sister-in-law.
“I just managed to get through telling her I needed help when suddenly I was out of breath. I told her I needed an ambulance.”
Though Barnim knew he needed urgent care – he didn’t want to acknowledged the possibility that something was wrong with his heart.
“Denial is common with heart attacks,” he says, referring to his training as an emergency first responder. “I didn’t want to admit that I was really sick, but I had all of the classic symptoms: sweatiness, tightness in chest, pains in the arms. They were all there, all of the warning signs that I’d been teaching other people to be aware of.”
LHSC’s Dr. Patrick Teefy, cardiologist, points out that the symptoms of heart attack should always be taken seriously and stresses the importance of calling 911 to seek immediate help.
“There are many different ways that heart attacks present. Classic symptoms include heaviness in the chest (often described as a weight or tightness), pain that radiates up the shoulders and down the left are or into the neck or back, often associated with sweating, nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath,” he says. “However, patients may sometimes experience atypical symptoms such as pain in other areas of the body and a sudden sense of feeling generally unwell.”
The response to Barnim’s call for help came quickly and he was transported to Tillsonburg District Memorial Hospital, where he was given a blood clot busting drug.
“When a patient is brought in by ambulance for a suspected heart attack, the physician takes a history and conducts an electrocardiogram (ECG) - a reasonably sensitive test to indicate a heart attack (myocardial infarction),” explains Dr. Teefy. “If the test confirms a heart attack, then the blocked artery must be opened – either physically with a procedure to implant a stent, which is a small mesh tube that allows blood to flow through, or by using thrombolytic therapy, or ‘clot buster,’ to dissolve the clot.”
When the clot busters failed to resolve Barnim’s symptoms, it became clear he’d need additional care.
“Clot busters only work 50-60% of the time, so if the patient isn’t feeling better then they must urgently be transported to a centre that open the artery with a stenting procedure,” explains Dr. Teefy.
Barnim recalls becoming conscious – woken by the cold air - and discovering he was being loaded back into the ambulance for transport to London Health Sciences Centre’s University Hospital, the nearest percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) centre, where he could receive a stent. Being on the receiving end of care was a strange place for Barnim.
“I could feel that anticipation – just knowing what they needed to be doing. I wanted to get up off the stretcher and do it, but the paramedics were following procedures perfectly,” he says. When he arrived at LHSC, Barnim recalls hearing the medical team call out words that he most dreaded: “He’s going v-tach.” “I knew what that meant,” says Barnim. “I thought ‘Oh my God, they’re going to shock me. This is going to hurt.’ ”
“V-tach is short for ventricular tachycardia, which is an electrical disturbance of the heart where the ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, starts to speed up and goes at a very fast rate,” says Dr. Teefy. “This is dangerous because not only could the patient collapse or go into full cardiac arrest, but since the heart isn’t beating effectively, blood pressure can drop and deprive the brain of oxygen, which can cause irreversible brain damage. The defibrillator can shock the heart back into a normal rhythm.”
When the defibrillator was applied to his chest, Barnim lost consciousness. The next time he would wake would be a week later. He then learned that the medical team had performed CPR on him for 45 minutes and had used the defibrillator four times in order to save his life. Once he was stabilized, he was placed in a medically induced coma and his body temperature lowered to help his body recover.
“They called me the miracle of 2012,” he says with awe. For Barnim, the road to recovery extends beyond his initial heart attack. In 2013, he underwent robotic surgery on his heart to clear blockages and he has had to lead a notably slower lifestyle. But although his life is different now, he is focused on appreciating the simple joys in life that have always brought him satisfaction, like spending time with family and in nature. And of course, he is deeply grateful to those who have saved his life.
“They gave me the chance to see my first granddaughter born in June of 2013,” he says of the EMS technicians and the medical teams that rushed to his aid and delivered care. “I was able to see my oldest son get his first deer and I can teach my seven-year-old step-grandson about nature. My dad was a great outdoorsman. It’s just the neatest thing to watch children and the way they learn things and the outdoors. To be able to pass some of that down is just amazing.“