On Dec. 15, 2008, Jeff Lennox was sitting in the basement of his home, wrapping Christmas presents for his wife, Sarah, when he heard the front door open unexpectedly. It was Sarah. She was supposed to be out shopping, but had come home early. "Don't come down," Jeff called up to her. He knew Sarah was a snoop and he wanted her presents to be a surprise.
A few minutes later, Jeff came upstairs to talk to his wife in the kitchen. He wasn't well, he told Sarah. His chest felt heavy and he was having trouble breathing. Sarah thought Jeff looked pale. She felt his forehead; it was cool and clammy. Earlier that day, Jeff had run 10 kilometres on a treadmill at their home in Binbrook, Ont.; the 28-year-old Hamilton police officer was healthy and fit. Sarah, also 28 at the time, had just gotten over a cold. They both assumed she had passed it on.
After talking to Sarah about what they'd have for dinner, Jeff went back downstairs to finish his wrapping. The last words he penned were on a gift tag, "To Sarah, Love Jeff, xoxoxo."
"Do you know CPR?"
Suddenly, Jeff says now, he "just knew" something was very wrong. He tried to head back up the stairs, but before he reached the top step, he collapsed. He doesn't remember anything after that.
For Sarah, the events are unforgettable. From the kitchen she heard her husband say, "Sarah, I really don't feel so...." Then she heard a squeaking noise as Jeff tried to grip onto the railing, followed by a horrible bang. Sarah rushed to the top of the stairs and saw Jeff's body crumpled on the landing.
Sarah reacted quickly: She grabbed the cordless phone, dialed 911 and ran to Jeff. His jaw was clenched shut, but he was moaning so loudly that Sarah could barely hear the operator. Sarah had no idea her husband's heart was about to stop beating. She ran to unlock the front door for the paramedics. When she returned, Jeff was quiet, his face purple and his eyes red and bulging. The 911 operator asked, "Do you know CPR?" Sarah replied, "Yes."
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Sarah, who works in graphic and web design for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, was not used to emergency situations, but she had taken CPR classes, first as a camp counsellor and then in preparation for another job. She immediately positioned Jeff so he was lying flat on the landing, with his legs up on the stairs. Then she placed her hands on his chest and began compressions. "I remembered from a CPR class that the Bee Gees song 'Stayin' Alive' is actually the perfect beat for CPR, so I started singing that in my head. It's kind of funny how the title is 'Stayin' Alive.'"
Sarah put the operator on speakerphone and accidentally hung up on her. The operator called back. Sarah put the speaker on again and placed the phone on the stair above Jeff's body. She blew breaths into Jeff's mouth and heard gurgling noises. The dispatcher told her to keep at it.
"What was going through my head at the time was, OK, I will do CPR," Sarah says. "Jeff would want me to do that. He's going to be proud of me and when the paramedics get here, they are going to fix him because he's young and healthy." But after eight minutes, Sarah began to get frantic. "When are they going to get here?" Sarah yelled into the receiver. "I hadn't lost it until that moment," she recalls.
The paramedics arrive
Volunteer firefighters arrived two minutes later, along with paramedics and a police officer with the Hamilton Police Service, Const. Scott Moreton. The firefighters pulled Jeff up the stairs and placed him on the kitchen floor as Sarah collapsed. "I could barely catch my breath," she says. "Beyond the stress of it, I was physically exhausted."
Sarah sat down and took some deep breaths, gathering her thoughts and energy. Then she returned to Jeff's side. The paramedics hadn't found his heartbeat and were getting the defibrillator ready. Moreton, who had worked with Jeff on a few occasions, was standing in the kitchen crying. Right then, Sarah realized that Jeff was dead.
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"It didn't click with me that he was dead that whole time I was doing CPR. I had thought, They'll get here, it will be OK. They'll figure out what's wrong. Jeff will be in the hospital for a bit, and I'll make sure he's OK. It was not until I saw the officer crying that it hit me. And then I thought, Oh my God, I can't believe this is happening."
Sarah called Jeff's mother, Anne. She told her that Jeff had fallen down the stairs and paramedics couldn't find a heartbeat. Sarah passed the phone to Moreton, who gave Anne more information. Unfortunately, he didn't hang up the phone properly – Anne heard the commotion as her son's heart was shocked over and over.
In fact, Jeff's heart was shocked four times with the defibrillator. The paramedics would get a heartbeat, then lose it. They were finally able to get Jeff to stay with them long enough to be taken by ambulance to a Hamilton hospital. His heart stopped beating twice more on the trip.
At the hospital
Jeff's and Sarah's families were at the hospital by the time the ambulance arrived. Doctors had already warned them that the paramedics would still be working on Jeff when he came in, or in the worst case, they wouldn't be. Everyone was expecting Jeff to die. A doctor discussed autopsy permission forms with Sarah.
Tests showed Jeff had suffered from a prolonged cardiac arrest due to a blood clot in the left anterior artery of his heart. Dr. Greg Curnew, Jeff's cardiologist, admits Jeff's situation looked grim when he first came into the hospital. Curnew says he thought that if Jeff lived, "He would be in a vegetative state." Considering the length of time his heart was unable to pump oxygen through his body and brain – on and off over a 40-minute period – and the fact that he didn't seem to be waking up, "his prognosis was very poor," says Curnew.
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Curnew explains that what happened next was a "medical mystery." Others might call it a miracle. After 14 days in a coma, Jeff began to stir, moving his legs and arms. He couldn't speak or focus his eyes, but he was beginning to recover.
Sarah, her parents, Jeff's parents and his brothers and friends kept watch at his bedside around the clock. On Day 16, a nurse sat Jeff up in a chair. On Day 21, Jeff made what doctors call a "purposeful movement" – he wiped his cheek. On Day 23, several physiotherapists assisted Jeff in taking his first steps. His first words followed: "Sarah. Love. Mom. Dad. Sad."
With help from family and friends, Jeff gradually grew stronger. Finally, on February 12 – nearly two months after he'd had the cardiac arrest – Jeff was moved to the Acquired Brain Injury Clinic at Chedoke Hospital in Hamilton. There, he started an extensive eight-week rehab program, learning to read, write and speak again.
Curnew, who helped Jeff through his recovery and still meets with him today, feels that Jeff's case is unique. He was a young, healthy nonsmoker who was active and had no history of heart disease. There wasn't even any history of it in his family. "He is just one of those people we can't explain," Curnew says. "Sometimes heart disease is just being unlucky – kind of like being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being hit by lightning."
Today, Jeff is back at home with Sarah. His heart muscles have healed and his doctor says there is little chance of any further heart problems. But because of the oxygen deprivation to his brain, Jeff sometimes struggles with memory loss, and continuously works on improving his reading and speech. Recovery is challenging and frustrating, but the result could have been much worse if Sarah had not known CPR. Curnew says Sarah was "the first step in Jeff's survival."
"I still think back to those minutes and wonder how I even did the CPR," says Sarah. "But as soon as the 911 operator asked, 'Do you know CPR?' it was as if a switch went on in my head and I became a robot. I would never in a million years have thought that I would be doing CPR on my husband at the age of 28, but it happened and I was prepared."
Jeff is grateful that his wife acted so quickly. "Sarah has always been brave," he says. "She was smart and didn't panic and that saved my life. I am just happy to be alive and I have Sarah to thank for that."
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The community with a big heart
Surviving a cardiac arrest can be costly. Jeff did not have long-term disability coverage, and with his lengthy hospital stay and rehabilitation, he quickly used up his sick days. Plus, his government rehab coverage ended in December 2009. After a year, he's still unable to work. Luckily, Jeff has coworkers and community members with big hearts.
Insp. Robert Buck of the Hamilton Police Service says, "A call went out and each member of the service who wanted to could volunteer to donate up to three of their own [sick] days for Jeff, and that meant he could build up his sick bank again." Over 700 days were gathered – enough to keep Jeff on payroll for more than two years. Jeff plans to be back at work long before that.
Buck played a key role in organizing a now annual golf tournament that helped pay for Jeff's rehabilitation. The tournament, held in June 2009, raised $20,000. In addition, friends and family have made donations, including a neighbour who gave Jeff a cheque for $1,000, and a stranger from Vancouver who sent him $100, likely after learning about his story in an online newspaper report.
The ABCs of CPR
What is CPR? CPR stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It's an emergency treatment for people whose hearts have stopped beating and who are not breathing. Chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth artificial respiration help move blood (and oxygen) from the heart to the brain, which may help prevent brain death and prepare the heart to restart after defibrillation. People may stop breathing after a cardiac arrest, a stroke, a drug overdose or another severe physical trauma.
Why do I need to know CPR? You don't have to be in emergency services or work with children; you never know when you might need CPR to save a life. For example, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, a cardiac arrest occurs every 12 minutes in Canada. Most people are at home when their hearts stop beating.
How can I learn CPR? Take a class. In four to six hours you'll learn the skills you need to save someone's life. Contact the Heart and Stroke Foundation, St. John Ambulance or the Canadian Red Cross to find a class near you.
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