NORWAY — Last month Lew Jensen was dead.
Today he is very much alive and thankful to be so.
He credits his coworkers, a Norway police officer and PACE that he is sitting here telling his story. Well, sort of telling it.
Truth is, he remembers nothing of the day his heart stopped.
The 54-year-old from Auburn drove to work that day, like any other, although he can’t remember doing so. He does remember a few isolated, irrelevant things, like the Tweet he received saying the bank would be closing at 1 p.m. because of the blizzard.
Everything else he has pieced together from second- and third-hand reports.
An analyst on the Business Intelligence Team at Norway Savings Bank in Norway, he was trying to get on a conference call with staff in Portland and was having some difficulties. A coworker came into his cubicle, he says, to help.
It was around 12:15 p.m. on Tuesday, March 14.
“Apparently I began shaking and slid off my chair onto the floor,” he says.
“She immediately hollered for help and to call 911. Apparently many did and 911 was inundated with calls. They had her stay on the line and maintain a sight-line to what was happening with me. The 911 operator had my coworkers check for a pulse [there was none] and this and that.”
“Someone from IT and someone from Deposit Operations rushed in and one did [chest] compressions while the other breathed for me,” he continues, “while a third from IT coached.” [These folks prefer to remain anonymous, according to Jensen.]
“Everyone else [at the NSB Operations Center] was doing something, even if it was comforting each other.”
The first on the scene, Jensen thinks, was a Norway police officer. Then PACE arrived.
Jensen was rushed to Stephens Memorial Hospital and, later, transferred to Central Maine Medical Center.
He was kept somewhat sedated, he thinks, but “woke up in the hospital and other than being tired and having to recover, felt fine. They kept me pretty medicated and it was Thursday or Friday before I really became aware of what was going on.”
He says he has been asked if “he saw the white light?”
“As far as I know it was pretty dark … but I know it wasn’t hot!”
A gentle, thoughtful man, Jensen quietly tells his story dropping bits of humor and wisdom throughout.
He’s been told by his doctors that he suffered cardiac arrest – abrupt temporary or permanent cessation of the heartbeat.
It was caused by a virus.
And that’s about all he knows so far.
“I have a lot of questions,” he says.
He is hoping to get answers after a special cardiac MRI at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston – (which was Wednesday, April 26, the soonest appointment he could get) – and a follow up with his cardiologist next week.
However, it wasn’t until he heard a coworker say, “when you took your last breath,” that it really hit home what had happened to him. He had died.
“I heard that and it really sank in – what had happened,” he recalls.
“Boy I put my family through the wringer.”
But, he says, friends really stepped up.
His wife, Denise, and 17-year-old daughter, Olivia, along with his niece (a cardiac nurse in Massachusetts) rushed to SMH. So did Norway Savings Bank President Pat Weigel, Jensen’s supervisor and other bank officers.
His son, Llewellyn, is a sophomore at Bentley University outside of Boston.
“His old baseball coach drove down to get him in the middle of the snowstorm,” Jensen marvels, “and a neighbor shoveled our driveway that night … twice.”
“I heard from people I haven’t heard from in years and all of that reminds me it wasn’t a non-event.”
In fact, his niece told him there had been a 19-year-old brought in to where she worked recently with the same thing. She said it was rare but not unique.
He knows little about the virus that caused his heart to stop, he says, but he doesn’t think, based on how medical personnel dealt with him, that it was contagious.
“It would be easier [to understand] if it were diet or exercise related,” he adds, “but I had been eating healthy.”
Now, though, he and his wife stick to a low-sodium diet even though it isn’t necessary, and he walks.
“I have lost 20 pounds since this happened,” laughs Jensen, some from being in the hospital, some from his new eating habits and some from cardiac rehab that he has three times a week at CMMC. His rehab calls for “15 minutes on the treadmill, 15 minutes on the bike, 15 minutes on the stepper and 15 minutes with hand weights.”
While Jensen can’t remember that day, PACE Paramedic Chris Burnham and Advanced EMT Aaron Nugent can’t forget it.
“The conditions were awful,” Burnham recalls. “It came in [from dispatch] as ‘person fainted’ so we responded. Had we known CPR was being administered we would have had two rigs respond.”
Two rigs responding to a code (no pulse or breathing) is protocol because it affords more manpower, which is necessary in those situations.
“When we arrive about two minutes later, someone met us and said, ‘Ya, they’re doing CPR in there,’ so we flew in there.”
Burnham has been a paramedic for 16 years and worked for Naples, Windham, Westbrook and PACE. His partner that day, Nugent, has been in EMS service for nine years.
“It was a very stressful call,” Nugent adds.
“This call hinged on the two people who were doing CPR,” explains Burnham, who thinks it was a man and a woman.
“We would love to take credit but they made the difference. He [Jensen] did so well because of what they were doing.”
Burnham notes that EMS and the medical field is getting a lot more evidence-based protocols and outcomes are much better because of it.
PACE Director Robert Hand explains that in the past the protocol of EMS in a code situation would be to put the patient on a gurney and rush them to the hospital while performing CPR on the way.
“You can’t perform effective CPR in a moving ambulance,” he says. “So the protocol changed and now we can run these on-scene.”
What he means is EMS has 20 minutes to treat the patient on the scene before being required to transport to the hospital.
Further, he explains, we have all the meds and treatments the emergency department has. So EMS can administer Advanced Cardiac Life Support at the scene. Once the patient gets what is called a “shockable rhythm” the clock restarts, he says, and they have another 20 minutes to stabilize the patient before transporting.
However, none of this would have worked so well, they all agree, had Jensen’s coworkers not known what to do and started CPR.
“A true ‘save’ is very rare,” says Hand. He says most “saves” might restart the heart but the patient either doesn’t make it out of the hospital or, if they do survive, it is with serious deficits.
“Back in 1982 [when he started in EMS],” adds Burnham, “maybe one person in 30 would come out of the hospital and they would have severe problems.”
The new protocols are changing those stats, he says.
Now a patient is treated with meds and CPR in the hope of getting a shockable rhythm. A defibrillator must have something to stabilize. Shocking a non-working heart does nothing, he explains.
“His coworkers absolutely saved his life,” Hand continues. “They were the critical link in the chain of survival.”
“When we got there, he had no pulse,” recalls Nugent who describes putting the monitor on, giving Jensen meds and eventually shocking him, but only once.
“He went through several cardiac rhythms, but by the time we arrived at the hospital he not only had a heartbeat but a blood pressure of 150/100. His breathing was still slow so we continued to assist with his breathing”
Jensen was treated at SMH and then immediately transported to Central Maine Medical Center by another team. CMMC has a cath lab where Jensen was put into a medical coma while his temperature was brought down. This therapeutic hypothermia stops neurological damage from occurring.
“He’s so lucky he went down at work,” Burnham muses. “If it had been anywhere else … .”
The two can’t stop praising the coworkers.
“They’re the reason we had a good viable patient when we got there. They also have immense praise for Norway Police Officer Jim Ventresca who was first on the scene.
“He was so helpful,” says Burnham. “We were short of people and he was just so helpful.”
Burnham reflects that after every step of the protocol they administered, Jensen would respond very quickly. “You could tell the CPR had made a difference.”
While Nugent was doing chest compressions, maintaining an airway and trying to call for a second rig (the metal roof and cement walls of the building interfered with the radio signal), Burnham was administering the meds via an IO or intraosseous, which means directly into the bone marrow, as opposed to intravenous or via a vein.
By the time the second rig and its team arrived, they say they had a heart rhythm.
Everyone involved in this call, including the patient, can’t stress the importance and key role the CPR administered by his coworkers had.
“Early CPR saves lives,” states Burnham.
“I don’t have CPR training,” Jensen says adamantly, “but I bet I’ll get it! As will my family.
“This story is not about me,” Jensen continues, “it’s really about them [his coworkers and PACE].
“They brought me back.”
Fortunately for Jensen, NSB invited the American Heart Association to its last two annual health fairs and hosted CPR training, according to Richelle Wallace in NSB human resources.
“Going forward we are planning/coordinating to bring an expert in to conduct CPR and AED training for all employees at all locations,” says Wallace. “NSB is researching and expecting to purchase AEDs [automated external defibrillator] for all locations.
“We had been considering AEDs for our locations, but the recent experience prompted us to make it a priority. The experience also reinforced that CPR training for employees is critical to saving lives. When an emergency occurs such as the experience we recently had, it really puts all things in perspective … we all had quite a scare.”
Hand says anyone wishing to learn CPR should call PACE and they will be set up with Community CPR Training program teacher Ben McKenney. Hand also notes they do training for businesses and employees.
Hand adds that Paris Fire Department also offers CPR and First Aid classes.
Jensen is currently wearing a Zoll Lifevest. The vest wraps around his chest and has sensors that keep track of his heart’s rhythm. If his heart should stop again, he says the paddles in the vest will automatically “zap” him as an alarm sounds on the battery pack he wears at his waist.
“Every night I change the battery and recharge it. I have a ‘station’ with an antennae that sends the day’s heart information to Zoll.”
After his first week back at work full time, Jensen is tired. He tells how he came in the week before for a meeting just to prove to himself he could make the drive.
His tiredness is in part physical but equally so, emotional.
“We [coworkers] are a very close group and coming back this week I wanted it to be as normal as it could be.”
Jensen has been at the NSB Operations Center for four years and sees the same 30 people every day.
“After four years you can’t help but be close.”
He says it has been difficult for his coworkers as well. He describes how some want to talk but don’t want to upset him.
“It has been emotionally tough.”
Jensen says it took a while for him to read the copious amounts of cards and well wishes. “I had to come face to face with the fact I had died.”
There is also a certain amount of fear. He says he has no problem pushing himself at CMMC doing cardiac rehab but when he’s on his own, it is more difficult.
“When I am there [CMMC] I push myself because I am surrounded with [medical] personnel.”
When he is on his own walking and such, he says he feels some trepidation and “what if” moments about pushing himself.
He laughs and says his wife has “cut him a lot of slack but she lets me know those days are numbered!”
He says he is on meds to help the heart muscle repair and these make him even more tired. There has been some talk about a pacemaker though he is ambivalent about that.
Right now he credits the environment at NSB “which is healthy and good” and is deeply thankful to have been there when this happened.
“I am lucky I was where I was with employees trained and courageous enough to jump in.”
He is anxiously awaiting the results of the 90-minute cardiac MRI in Boston and learning much more about his prognosis.
In the meantime, he says, “If this [story] gets someone to take CPR – including me – it is an important story to share.”