Des Reilly of Nelson nearly died of a cardiac arrest on April 14 at age 41.
He’s fit, he eats well, and doesn’t smoke or drink. All those things we’re supposed to do to stay healthy — he’s been doing them for years.
He and his wife Dominique Huchet were heading home from the gym after a morning workout. He was in the driver’s seat. It was a normal day. But not for long.
“He pulled over, and he kind of slumped,” Huchet says, “and his eyes began to dilate really wide and at first I though he was light-headed or low blood sugar or something, but then quickly I could see it was much more serious.”
She phoned 911. Within 20 seconds of pulling over, Reilly lost consciousness.
The 911 operator wanted to know the address of the gas station they had parked at. Huchet didn’t know. She was so panicked that she couldn’t even remember the street name. So she ran inside and the attendant didn’t know the address either.
Meanwhile someone flagged down a Kokanee Mountain Zipline truck, hoping they might know first aid. The zipline company’s owner Jay Manton and his brother Todd were both in the vehicle. Both have occupational first aid certification, and Jay teaches it at Selkirk College.
“I checked, he wasn’t breathing, he had no pulse,” Jay told the Star. “So we grabbed him and yarded him onto the road and started CPR.”
“He took control,” Huchet says. “He was like an angel coming in — somebody who knew what to do.”
She says her memory is distorted because of her extreme panic, but she thinks it was about a minute after Reilly lost consciousness that CPR was started.
“Des was pale, he had lost all colour, and I was still on the phone with 911.”
A fire truck arrived eight minutes after she made the emergency call, with Dr. Nic Sparrow on board, an emergency room physician who often accompanies first responders.
“He was wearing a jacket that said ‘physician’ on it, and that gave me such a sense of security,” Huchet says. “They took over CPR and gave him oxygen and used a defibrillator.
“I could see the life draining from him. That is the most terrifying thing to witness and be so helpless. I was talking to Des, saying, ‘Keep breathing, keep breathing. The kids need you, I need you, we love you’”
Reilly has three children, ages 9, 14, and 17. Huchet is their stepmother.
After two shocks with the defibrillator, Reilly started to regain consciousness.
“I remember a lot of shouting around me,” Reilly says, “with Dominique screaming to stay with us, and I was trying to sit up, really straining to sit up, fighting it. And nothing after that.”
They had given him a sedative, and took him first to the hospital, then by airlift to Kelowna. When Reilly woke up, he had no idea where he was or what had happened.
“Next thing I knew, I was lying in a hospital bed with all these tubes attached to me, and I’m surrounded by all my family, and some of Dominique’s family from Vancouver, and they’re all standing there staring at me.”
He spent the next day gradually getting clear on what had happened to him. He was shocked to hear that he’d had a cardiac arrest, in which the heart suddenly stops beating normally and cannot pump blood effectively.
Cardiac arrest: 90 per cent don’t survive
According to the B.C. Heart and Stroke Foundation, cardiac arrest can occur at any age, at any time, to people of all fitness levels, and without warning. Death occurs in minutes without immediate action. For every minute of delay, the risk of death increases by 10 per cent.
A cardiac arrest happens every 13 minutes in Canada, and 90 per cent don’t survive.
Most cardiac arrests are caused by arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythms) that may not be diagnosed ahead of time.
People who know CPR can now register with and download new phone app, PulsePoint, to be notified by 911 operators if a cardiac arrest happens in a public area within 400 metres of them.
The app shows the location of the cardiac arrest and the location of registered automated external defibrillators (AEDs).
An AED is an extraordinarily user friendly apparatus that uses audio and visual commands to walk a layperson through its use, in real time. It automatically diagnoses the heart condition and applies electricity to stop the arrhythmia.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation has supplied 850 AEDs to B.C. communities in the past few years.
Emergency responders used an AED — basic equipment in the fire truck that attended — to save Reilly’s life.
There are a number of AEDs at various public locations around Nelson, including the BC Assessment Office at 333 Victoria St., the police and fire stations, and at the provincial government building at 310 Ward St.
‘Today was the first snowfall, and I wouldn’t have seen it’
From Kelowna, Reilly was transferred to Victoria for further testing. By this time it was clear how lucky he had been.
“If this had happened when I was at the ski hill or mountain biking, I wouldn’t have survived. Like Dr. Nic [Sparrow] said, ‘You just weren’t supposed to die that day.’”
It’s also possible that he would not have survived if he had been at home alone. His life depended on the presence of a passerby who knew CPR.
“Jay Manton saved my life,” Reilly says.
He and Manton have never met. They’ve since chatted on Facebook and have talked about going for coffee sometime.
Seven months later, Reilly is on heart medication, possibly for the rest of his life, and he’s back at the gym.
“Normally they would recommend lifestyle changes, for him though it was just carry on as you have been,” Huchet says.
Reilly says he’s more aware now of his mortality and he’s grateful for every day.
“I don’t usually cry but lately I’ve… today was the first snowfall, and I wouldn’t have seen it. And this Christmas, I’d never have this Christmas if they hadn’t stepped up the way they did and did what they did. It would have been the worst Christmas for my family. I would have just left the gym that day and that would be all.”
Huchet and Reilly are effusive in their praise of friends, family and co-workers who helped with transportation, meals, childcare, and fundraising, and other tasks after his emergency.
“It changes your perspective,” Huchet says. “You still get pulled into the daily stuff, because we all do, but I just think we are all older and wiser and very grateful to so many people.”