More than a heartbeat
Rick Perry had no previous history of heart disease
by Michelle Johnson | February 14, 2005
The morning of December 28th dawned as many others had before. Celebrations of the Christmas season found Rick, his wife Jackie and the rest of their family congregated at Jackie’s sister, Jill Erickson’s, house in Dassel, Minnesota. Presents had been unwrapped and discussion in the kitchen over a breakfast of coffee and toast was evolving around the tsunami. A TV report had just said that a Minnesota resident was swept up by a wave and reset safely on land. Rick is generally a dramatic person so when he began sinking to the floor Jackie and Jill thought he was being silly.
“But the minute he hit the floor, he went into a cardiac arrest seizure,” Jackie said. “I didn’t even realize that’s what it was...my head realized it, but I couldn’t acknowledge it for three days.” Jackie continued, “When he hit the floor, I screamed at my sister, ‘He’s not...he’s seizing...call 911.’ I couldn’t even finish my sentences."
At that time Jackie attempted to roll over a now face-down Rick to begin CPR, but he was very stiff and she injured her wrist in the process. Jackie has been an EMT with North Medical Transportation in Aitkin for 14 years and has been employed at Riverwood Healthcare Center for 10 years as a nurses’ aid in the recovery room.
She allowed her training to take over, all the while knowing his heart had stopped. She continued to call his name. Only about 30 seconds elapsed and suddenly Rick was conscious. He pushed himself off the floor.
“What!,” Rick replied, rather annoyed.
Jackie proceeded to ask him if he was okay and if he remembered what happened, all the while checking for a radial pulse that she was unable to find.
“I think it was either because it was still pretty slow or...,”Jackie’s voice trailed off. “I was pretty shaky.”
“I just started to feel funny,” Rick said. “And then it moved to where I felt like if I didn’t get close to the floor I was just going to go crashing to the floor. So I started to squat down by the cabinet I was leaning against and that’s it...The next thing I remember is hearing Jackie’s voice from [what seemed] like miles away.”
The first responders arrived a few minutes later and by that time the episode had passed and he was stable, so they were going to allow Rick to go to the local clinic on his own if he promised to go.
“I think I have two women here who won’t let me do anything else but [go to the clinic],” Rick said.
Rick and Jackie arrived at the clinic a short time later and he was immediately attended to. Jill Erickson, Jackie’s sister, is employed at the Dassel Clinic as a medical transcriptionist and had called ahead.
Once inside, the staff were baffled. Nothing appeared to be wrong. Rick’s pulse, blood pressure and heart rate all appeared to be normal. He was having difficulty concentrating and stringing words together for a while, but otherwise nothing upon first inspection appeared to be wrong.
“There were a couple of times I felt funny [even after reaching the clinic],” Rick said. “Like I was fading out, like I was sinking through the bed and heading out and I told Jackie that, ‘I’m going’.”
‘NO, you’re not!’ Jackie said. ‘I’ve worked too hard to get you this far, no you’re not!’
There were discussions going on around Rick that he wasn’t fully aware of. The doctors discussed with Jackie the possibility of doing a CAT scan and other tests to rule out a stroke. They considered this 49-year-old man a mystery.
When Rick was in a prone (lying down) position at the clinic he appeared to handle his episodes of feeling ‘funny’ fairly well but when he tried to sit up after about three minutes he would begin to not feel well again. Because the clinic staff were getting ready to release him to seek follow up medical treatment in Aitkin they didn’t have Rick hooked up to a monitor of any sort. Once the staff noticed his difficulty they would not allow him to leave but instead called for the ambulance to transport him to the hospital in Hutchinson.
The ambulance arrived and preparations for the trip were made. Rick was placed on the gurney and hooked up to monitors to take him for the short 20-minute drive. As they finished, Rick looked at Jackie and said, “There’s another one coming and this one is worse than before.”
His heart rate dropped to 40 beats per minute. An average normal resting heart rate is approximately 60 beats per minute.
The ambulance screamed to Hutchinson at code three - sirens and lights. Whatever was occurring with Rick could happen again at any moment and he needed to be in a facility equipped to handle it.
It did occur again. Shortly after they were underway, Rick blacked out again. By this time they had him hooked up to monitors, including one that showed his heart rhythm. According to the rhythm strips his heart stopped...beat once...stopped...beat once. One beat every 15 to 30 seconds is not a life sustaining heart rate.
The survival rate for a cardiac arrest victim, which is different from a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association, is only five percent. Before reaching the hospital 95% of these cases die. Time was of the essence, but what was causing Rick’s heart to stop and restart on it’s own?
When Jackie arrived at the Hutchinson Hospital she was informed that Rick was packaged and ready to go to Abbott Northwestern Hospital, 60 miles away, for a pacemaker.
“What?” said Jackie.
She was escorted to see Rick who lay there sheepishly, still floored by the news, knowing that his wife of 30 years would be shocked.
The trip to Abbott was uneventful and once at the hospital Rick met the staff who would be overseeing his case in the cardiac unit.
“They were trying to decide what to do with me, because other than the fact that my heart stopped, there wasn’t anything else going on,” said Rick. “I hadn’t had any chest pain, I hadn’t had a heart attack, none of the kind of stuff they are used to having in the cardiac unit at Abbott.”
“The doctors told us that Rick was a mystery,” Jackie said. “The tests showed no heart blockage, no disease. Rick was a mystery to them. The doctors indicated that it could be the electrical conductivity in his heart misfiring, but the cause was undetermined.”
“His nurse said excitedly, ‘Look at this! Look at this! He didn’t have a heartbeat for 30 seconds.’ He was known as the luckiest man at Abbott for that day,” said Jackie.
Surgery took place the next day. It only took a few hours to implant the pacemaker that would regulate Rick’s heartbeat. The surgery was done under a local anesthesia and a sedative, so Rick was able to interact with the doctors almost the entire time. Rick was released the next day and has been able to resume regular activity within a month without a restricted diet.
The pacemaker is doing its job. Rick continues to see a healthcare provider who can adjust the pacemaker to start doing its job based on Rick’s actual heartbeat. The need for this device has been confirmed in that it has kicked in because his heart wasn’t beating at the rate it’s supposed to or his heart was possibly attempting to stop all together as it had before. This has occurred 111 times, an average of three and a half times a day, in the month since it has been implanted!
“Many factors came into play in the whole course of events,” Rick said. “Had they been arranged differently the end result could have been different.”
Jackie was scheduled to work the day it occurred but was able to have someone fill in for her and was on hand for Rick, to respond to his urgent need for immediate care.
Why Rick’s heart stopped and started again without any apparent external measures is extraordinary.
“That is mind boggling,” said Rick. “God obviously wasn’t ready to take me home yet. A couple of God’s purposes are easy to see. We have Susie, our daughter age 11 and Dakota, our son age 6, at home and they need a mom and a dad. And the Kimberly Church...and we’re still waiting to see what else God has in store for us. As followers of Christ we live on Christ’s time and now I have a very ready reminder of that right here underneath the skin on my chest. I am really not on my own time.”
This article first appeared in the February 15, 2005 issue of the Voyageur Press.