By Wanda Chow – Burnaby NewsLeader
Published: May 21, 2013 12:00 PM
Updated: May 21, 2013 1:56 PM
Cariboo Heights resident Paddy Sullivan had just done some gardening at his family’s church with his nine-year-old son and they were headed home.
It was a typical summer day, July 13, 2012, and the pair were cycling up the hill on Cariboo Road and just approaching 16th Avenue.
“I have a vague, vague memory, and I don’t even know if it’s real, of reaching the intersection and that’s where I collapsed.”
Several years earlier Sullivan had been diagnosed with a faulty heart valve. Four months earlier, he learned his heart was now enlarged, and he would require surgery to repair the valve.
The Burnaby man distinctly recalls asking his cardiologist what activity to avoid. Weight lifting was out, he was told, but cardio exercise was fine.
Now he was collapsed on the side of the road. He doesn’t remember anything after that.
Certified in CPR
North Burnaby resident Michelle Lin was driving to her job as a lifeguard at Canada Games Pool in New Westminster when she encountered the scene—Sullivan lying on the ground with a crowd of about a dozen people around him.
Lin jumped out of her vehicle and was asked if she was certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR.
She was, in fact, and had taken part in training exercises three times a year at the pool.
But this was the first time she’d ever had to use it.
Nevertheless, Lin, now 21, recalled that she simply followed her training. She had someone retrieve her pocket mask from her vehicle and she began compressions on Sullivan’s chest.
After two sets of 30 compressions and mouth-to-mouth ventilation, Lin was concerned she wasn’t able to push hard enough on Sullivan, who is much larger than she is, as she was practically standing over top of him to maximize the pressure.
“I actually remembered in my head one of my trainers, Ron Straight, I remember his voice echoing in my head, ‘if your compression is not deep enough then it’s not providing enough circulation and … a good compression could probably break ribs.'”
So Lin did the next best thing and called on a male bystander to assist, instructing him how hard to push and to do it to the beat of the Bee Gees’ song Stayin’ Alive, while she provided ventilation.
She took over again when the paramedics arrived and continued, as they instructed, while they shocked Sullivan’s heart with a portable defibrillator before rushing him to hospital.
Lin says she lapsed into a bit of shock. “I remember going into my car and I just started crying.”
In coma for a week
Sullivan lay in a coma in intensive care for a week before regaining consciousness.
“I remember I woke up in the hospital, and thought, ‘Alright let’s get this tube out, let’s get out of here … I thought I’d just fainted or something.”
His wife, Jennifer, filled him in on what had happened and the gravity of the situation began to sink in.
When a heart stops beating and pumping oxygen to the brain, within about four minutes brain damage can occur. Sullivan’s heart was stopped for about 11 minutes.
But thanks to the CPR, he didn’t have many lasting effects.
Four days after waking up he was home from the hospital. Two weeks later he had open-heart surgery to fix the valve with surgeons implanting a cardiac defibrillator just in case, since the actual cause of his cardiac arrest was still something of a mystery.
Now 42, for Sullivan, life is pretty much back to normal.
A regular patron at Canada Games Pool, he’s even managed to thank Lin in person.
“I said, ‘Thank you … you did it, you didn’t walk away, you did it correctly.’ She didn’t crack my ribs, thank goodness,” he said with a laugh.
The family made sure to tell Lin’s bosses at the pool what she’d done and nominated her for BC Ambulance Service’s Vital Link Award, which recognizes bystanders who perform CPR before paramedics arrive, an honour which she’ll receive at Canada Games Pool on May 23 at 4 p.m.
“We’re really proud of Michelle, we put a lot of training into our lifeguards and we take safety here at the pool very seriously, so we were very excited to see she was able to apply those skills and help someone who ultimately visits our facility,” said Cidalia Martin, assistant manager at the pool.
Ron Straight, advanced life support paramedic educator for BC Ambulance Service, and who helped train Lin in CPR, said she did the right thing in finding someone who could help provide strong enough compressions on Sullivan.
Straight noted that the only two things that can save a person in cardiac arrest is CPR and appropriately-timed defibrillation.
“Without CPR, the chances that a defibrillator will work drop by seven to 10 per cent for every minute that passes,” he said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind without Michelle having done CPR until the defibrillator got there … that gentleman’s odds would have been way less.”
Straight urged more people to learn CPR, which can take as little as two hours for basic training (For more information visit the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s website at http://bit.ly/13ByXgF).
As a paramedic, he said, “It’s disheartening to know how many people could be alive today if somebody had done CPR.”
Tears of joy
As for Lin, the Burnaby Mountain secondary grad received regular updates on Sullivan’s recovery from his wife, Jennifer, via messages through pool staff.
She said she was still feeling “raw” from the experience, feeling perhaps she hadn’t done a good enough job on the CPR, and was reluctant to get in touch with the family, especially when Sullivan was still in a coma.
Eventually, she received a card from Jennifer telling her Sullivan had awoken and was walking and talking and on his way to recovery.
Lin cried tears of joy.
“It was pure happiness, that’s all I can say,” she said.
Lin is currently studying kinesiology at the University of British Columbia and said the incident had a profound impact on her.
She considered changing her career path to become a paramedic, but determined her slight build might make her unsuitable for the work and the heavy lifting sometimes involved. Instead, she decided to pursue her original goal of becoming a physiotherapist but to change her focus from treating patients with chronic pain to those needing acute treatment, people rehabilitating from a heart attack or car accident, for example.
It’s also changed her outlook on life.
“Before I didn’t realize how fine the line between life and death could be,” she said. “Ever since then I’ve been really just trying to live my life as happy as I could be.”
She used to stress out about work and school. Now, she’s able to relax more and find happiness in simpler aspects of life.
“I do believe I have to thank [Sullivan] for this lesson that he has provided me because it has been a life-changing experience having done the CPR. It has changed me, it has changed my life outcome so I am very grateful to him for providing me with this experience.”
Michelle and Paddi
2) “While lifeguarding at a Vancouver Public Swimming Pool, last spring, I recognized a swimmer from the master’s competitive swim club, seizing. Right away I recalled Ron demonstrating this pre-arrest seizure. As I approached and began to care for him, I recognized that he was agonal breathing. Again, I thought had it not been for the explicit informative instruction, I could have misconstrued this for normal breathing. We immediately removed the arrested swimmer as these breaths continued, started CPR compressions and then employed the AED. With SAFE’s advice, the Vancouver Parks Board had purchased these, having found a less expensive source. After our AED shocked the swimmer the second time, we found a pulse. He has fully recovered and has been back to thank us. This education had really paid off. While I found this an emotional experience, it is so rewarding to realize we were able to save a man’s life! I told Ron that it demonstrated to me the value of such instruction and practice.”
Kam with her husband and two girls.