Six months after strangers revived his stopped heart and surgeons unclogged several arteries in heart, Dan Wessel headed toward Christmas feeling great – so great that his wife asked him to dress up as Santa Claus for a program at the school where she teaches.
Dan loved it. Yet on his way out of the building, a familiar, awful feeling overcame him. It was the same lightheadedness he’d felt six months earlier, and he leaned into a row of lockers for support.
“All of a sudden – kaboom!” Dan said. “I went down again.”
The first time he went down, three CPR-trained bystanders saved his life. Now he needed that kind of luck again.
Before his problems, Dan was so active that he hardly ever thought about his health.
No matter the weather in his hometown of Osakis, Minn., he ran, biked, walked or swam almost every day. He also coached or officiated a variety of sports: volleyball, wrestling, softball and baseball. At 51, he didn’t watch his diet because he figured being so active would compensate for any extra calories.
While swimming one day last May, he felt pain in his shoulders and chest, and struggled to catch his breath. He went to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a respiratory infection. Antibiotics helped him feel better, and he resumed his normal schedule.
Two weeks later, Dan was umpiring a softball game when he suddenly felt lightheaded. He then collapsed.
He was in cardiac arrest.
Luckily, a fireman, a police officer and a bus driver – all trained in CPR – were at the field. They sprang into action, calling 9-1-1 and beginning chest compressions. Dan resumed breathing, only to lapse into cardiac arrest a second time. They started CPR again, only to have the cycle play out yet again: Dan resumed breathing, then had another cardiac arrest.
An ambulance arrived about that time and the emergency crew shocked Dan’s heart back into rhythm using an automated external defibrillator, or AED.
“You’re one lucky man,” a nurse told him during his brief stay at a local hospital. From there, he was airlifted to the heart center at St. Cloud Hospital.
Doctors discovered that Dan needed triple bypass surgery. He had two arteries that were 100 percent blocked, and a third that was 90 percent blocked.
Dan’s triglyceride level was elevated at the time of his cardiac arrest, so doctors recommended that he watch what he ate. Otherwise, they felt good about his recovery.
“The doctor told me, ‘We’re going to get another 40 years out of you,’ and I thought, `That’s great!’” he said.
Three weeks later, Dan felt strong enough to return to umpiring. His debut went so well, he worked about 30 more games that season.
He also went through cardiac rehabilitation and his usual exercise routine. Within six months, he felt back to normal.
Until the day he played Santa.
Again, Dan was saved by the quick action of bystanders. This time it was three students who called 9-1-1, fetched the school nurse and brought the school’s AED.
“It was just amazing how fast those kids responded,” Dan said.
The school nurse performed CPR and shocked Dan with the AED until he was revived. He was again taken to St. Cloud Hospital, where this time doctors discovered an electrical misfiring in his heart. They implanted a defibrillator in his chest that will shock his heart back into rhythm if it stops beating normally or if there’s another electrical misfiring.
“They tell me that if it ever goes off, it’ll feel like you’re getting kicked in the chest by a horse,” Dan said. “I’m not looking forward to that, but at least it’s there if I need it.”
Less than 11 percent of victims survive out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. Effective bystander CPR provided immediately after cardiac arrest can double or triple a victim’s chance of survival, but only 41 percent of cardiac arrest victims get CPR from a bystander.
Last year, Minnesota became one of the first few states in the country to pass a law requiring CPR training as a high school graduation requirement, an initiative strongly advocated by the American Heart Association.
“Twice, I was in the right place at the right time, and twice people saved me,” he said.
In January, the American Heart Association presented Heartsaver Hero Awards to everyone involved in both of Dan’s incidents – the spectators who took action at the softball game (Ryan Hanson, Jay Stewart and Gary Bentz); the students (Courtny Walters, Ariel Chalmers and Brandon Giesler) and nurse (Anita Baker) who took action in December; and all the first responders (Adam Trisco, Brandon Anderson, Brandon Spanswick Jason Leonard, Erich Doehling and Mark Grinstead). Dan’s grandchildren were there wearing T-shirts that read, “Thank You For Saving My Grandpa.”
“It’s so much more real to me now,” Dan said. “I never paid much attention to heart issues before because I thought, ‘Heck, that’s not going to happen to me.’”
Coincidentally, Dan’s wife Kirsten has long been a supporter of the American Heart Association, spearheading Jump Rope For Heart events at local schools for the last 12 years.
Now 52, Dan still exercises regularly, but pays closer attention to his diet, cutting out fried and fatty foods and monitoring his sodium intake. His efforts have helped him lose 25 pounds.
“I’m eating more fruits and vegetables than I ever did,” Dan said. “Instead of filling up on a bag of chips, I’ll grab an apple or orange instead.”
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