Jogging a Memory


By John L McHale

As everyone knows, if your heart stops for 27 seconds, you've got a problem — no blood flowing to your brain. But thanks to a road-running habit, my heart started beating again after the short stoppage. I survived.

Until Sunday, Jan. 22, 1995, I enjoyed a healthy life. I had never spent a night in a hospital — except, actually, for a tonsillectomy early in my first of seven decades.

My wife, Genevieve, and I had attended church and then done some supermarket shopping for our apartment near Vero Beach, FL. Following a light lunch and there being no football on TV (a week before the Superbowl), I lay down for a nap about 3 p.m. I had set out my jogging shoes, shirt and shorts to do a daily three-mile run along North-South Route A-l-A.

Genevieve, reading in a nearby room, suddenly heard a thump. She rushed to the bedroom and found me unconscious on the floor. She telephoned 911. The next thing I knew I was hoisted to a stretcher by a City of Indian River Shores emergency paramedic team. They attached a portable EKG and did other emergency procedures. They radioed blood pressure and pulse information ahead to the Indian River Memorial Hospital.

I don't know whether my heart stopped that afternoon. I'm told that the vital signs gave no hint on the black-out cause.

Recalling from periodic physical examinations, I remembered being advised that a pulse rate generally matched life style. My rate was once quite high, over 70 beats a minute. Then, taking up daily road running rescued me from stagnation some 20 years ago, and my pulsing fell to the 50's.

At the hospital, I was admitted overnight. The diagnosis was a mystery despite an MRI and other tests. An EKG monitor was affixed to my chest.

About 10:45 p.m., I'm told, a technician observed on her nursing monitor near my room that my normally jagged EKG video image had suddenly flattened. Alas, her screen showed a plain horizontal line. It meant that my heart had flat-out stopped. "Room 247 — check the patient," she called into her microphone.

I was fortunate. Two nurses dashed from an adjoining room and shook me until my eyes blinked. My heart had restarted. (I later obtained a souvenir chart print-out displaying the straight horizontal line across the 27 seconds!.)

They transferred me to Critical Care. My doctor came from his home. After a time, he entered my room and flashed thumbs-up, saying, "Good. We know what your trouble is. We can correct it. The worst is over."

The EKG had revealed the electrical culprit. I had not had a heart attack or stroke. The heart itself was altogether OK, but.I needed, the physician said, an electronic heart pacemaker.

Temporarily, an external electrical pacemaker was taped outside my chest. As I rested while undergoing further tests, the device delivered a low-voltage jolt whenever my pulse rate slipped below 40. The mildly uncomfortable sensations continued for most of the night. My bedside video flashed an unchanging 39 at each jolt.

It was explained that a tiny signal device -- my natural heart pacemaker — had become unreliable. It allowed my pulse to drop so low that my heart's otherwise healthy muscles had ceased to operate. Speaking medically, I was victim of a "sick sinus." A sinus, I learned, instructs the heart to beat.

Arrangements were made for a cardiologist to implant the permanent electronic pacemaker internally near my left collarbone in an hour's surgery the next morning.

Meanwhile, specialists explained how my condition involved technical cardiologic and pacemaker functions. Compare your natural pacemaker to a car's starter, they said. Hopefully the car engine works, but it runs only if and when the starter tells it to. My heart muscles were strong, according to the heart surgeon, while my starter, the sinus, had quit.

The permanent pacemaker functioned silently. I felt nothing. Set to maintain a steady pulse of 60, it also continually recorded the times of my most recent 24 hours of heart activity.

As I left the hospital, physicians remarked how pleased they were. Only aerobic conditioning from road-running had saved me, they said. The emergency room physician termed survival from so extended a stoppage "extraordinarily rare."

I was allowed to schedule golf, tennis and jogging after about three weeks. Anxious to return to the roads, I completed, after about a month, the 17th annual Sunrunners 10,000-meter road race in Vero Beach on Feb. 26, crossing the finish line in a deliberate one hour. I felt back.

Striding along on days thereafter at a nonchalant eight-minutes-per-mile pace, my pacemaker silently doing its miraculous job, you must forgive me, as the saying goes, for recognizing a debt of gratitude. My close call had intensified an overall feeling of "runner's high," which I had been enabled to enjoy. . I realized that ...

I owe you, jogging,

Thanks for the future.