By Ken Sturtz
When Lisa Wiles replays the events of April 9, 2020, as she has many times, she’s reminded that things easily could’ve ended differently.
She worked a half day, napped, ran errands and then showered. It was her brother’s birthday so she and her husband, Dan Wiles, were about to eat dinner before joining a Zoom call with family. If her schedule had been different or her husband had been somewhere else, say in the backyard with their dogs, no one would’ve been there when he went into cardiac arrest.
“When something like this happens, everything has to be perfect for there to be a good outcome,” Wiles says. “All that stuff had to happen exactly perfectly and did for him.”
The couple were late for the Zoom call and had thrown together a quick dinner to eat before joining the virtual get together. Lisa remembers her husband took his food into the living room of their Marcellus home and she was getting ready to follow. She heard him swear and assumed he was watching television.
“I just walked out there and he was gone,” she says. “He was sitting on the couch and he was making these horrible breathing sounds.”
For a moment Wiles thought her husband was choking, but she quickly realized that wasn’t the problem. She slapped his face and shouted his name. No response.
“His eyes were kind of looking somewhere else,” she says. “It’s like he wasn’t in there.”
She darted for a phone. A 911 dispatcher heard the noises Dan was making and said she needed to start CPR. Lisa dragged him onto the floor and began chest compressions. She remembered where to place her hands from a CPR course she’d taken nearly two decades earlier.
The 911 dispatcher was an amazing help, Lisa says, staying on the line with her to count compressions, encourage her and keep her focused. Wiles continued compressions. One minute passed. Two minutes. Then three. She repeatedly asked why wasn’t anyone coming? The dispatcher promised help was on the way. It felt like an eternity.
After four minutes a sheriff’s deputy burst in with an automated external defibrillator (AED). As the deputy set the device up Lisa continued compressions. The AED indicated Dan’s heart wasn’t in a shockable rhythm, so a second deputy who’d arrived took over compressions. They tried again to use the AED, but with the same result. Firefighters and paramedics arrived and began working on her husband. By now he’d started to turn blue.
“There were a lot of people there and everybody was quiet,” Lisa says. “That worried me; I was thinking he was dead.”
The defibrillator from the ambulance indicated a shockable rhythm and, after a shock, his heart started beating again. Total time: 13 minutes.
Dan was conscious and making noise. The paramedics loaded him onto a stretcher and hustled outside. It was then that Lisa realized how many people were there. The police cars, fire trucks and ambulance had all arrived without her noticing. She’d assumed that she would be able to go with her husband to the hospital, but was quickly reminded that because of Covid restrictions she’d have to remain behind.
“I am good in a crisis, not too good after, but I am good in a crisis,” Lisa says.
She found herself in an empty house with little evidence of what had transpired besides some moved furniture and medical debris. Not being allowed into the ER was terrible, she says. She was eventually allowed to see her husband in the hospital for about an hour, but couldn’t bring anyone with her. Dan had a broken sternum and suffered some short-term memory loss. He was still disoriented, couldn’t remember his wife’s name and initially kept repeating himself.
But when Lisa walked into the hospital room, she was relieved that he recognized her. After that brief visit, she didn’t see him for five days.
Lisa and Dan learned he’d suffered atrial fibrillation, during which the heart’s upper chambers get out of sync with the lower chambers and beat irregularly. Then his heart went into ventricular tachycardia – a rhythm problem caused by irregular electrical signals in the heart’s lower chambers – which led to cardiac arrest.
He’d been diagnosed in 2012 with atrial flutter but was treated with medication and an ablation procedure. He was later diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and underwent a second ablation. After the incident in 2020, doctors implanted a cardioverter defibrillator in his chest. The device monitors the heart and delivers a shock if it detects an irregular heartbeat.
Although his recovery took several months, Lisa says Dan is “almost 100 percent healthy” now.
But as grateful as she was for the outcome, she says the incident was difficult to deal with. It upended their lives. Her husband’s family were the longtime owners of Mid-Lakes Navigation, the popular Skaneateles Lake tour boat company. The family had sold the business a few months prior to the incident and Lisa says her husband, who’d been a captain for nearly 40 years, was finally looking forward to relaxing for a few months before going back to work.
The recovery was also made more difficult by the forced isolation of the pandemic. And Lisa spent months dealing with the trauma of what had happened and, worried it might happen again, feared leaving her husband alone.
As they approached the one-year anniversary, Lisa says she decided she wanted to use what happened to her husband to encourage more people to receive CPR training. They teamed up with Marcellus Ambulance Volunteer Emergency Services (MAVES), including one of the paramedics who’d worked on Dan, to offer community CPR classes.
They received so much interest that they ended up organizing a class in Marcellus and two in Rochester, where Lisa is from. In total, 51 people received training in CPR. Five of their nieces also walked a marathon to raise $3,500 to buy equipment for MAVES.
The weekend after Thanksgiving 2021, Lisa and Dan boarded a cruise ship bound for the Caribbean. The couple had been on cruises before, but this time they decided it would be just the two of them. After everything that had happened they needed to get away, Lisa says.
They had a relaxing trip and a week later were disembarking in New Jersey. Lisa and her husband entered the terminal to pick up their luggage before waiting for a relative to pick them up when something several hundred feet away caught her attention.
“I hear this woman yelling,” she says. “I see her and her husband is laying on the floor right next to the luggage. And no one was helping her.”
They walked a bit farther and still no one seemed to be helping. Lisa decided she had to do something and, without saying a word to Dan, walked toward the woman.
By the time she reached the man someone had placed him on his side. She asked his wife what was wrong. The 77-year-old had undergone bypass surgery recently. The man wasn’t breathing and had begun to turn purple. She decided to start CPR.
“I was doing compressions and I kept looking up and all I could see was this sea of yellow vests just staring back at me,” she says. “And they were just deer in headlights.”
The people in the yellow vests were porters, there to help carry luggage. She called for someone to find an AED. She continued compressions for a couple minutes until two men approached, told her they had military training and offered to take over compressions. She stepped back, but stayed with the man’s wife.
“I didn’t want to leave her,” she says. “I had been in her position; I thought I knew what she was feeling and I wanted her to know people were trying to help.”
Someone called 911 and a porter came running with an AED. Lisa helped pull the man’s sweatshirt up so they could attach the pads. She stayed until Port Authority officers arrived. The scene was chaotic and she wanted to get away. She was concerned about her husband, who had never witnessed CPR being performed. And she didn’t think the man was going to survive since he hadn’t been responsive or even making noise.
She found out later that the man had survived and spoke briefly with his wife. The incident, and the fact that so many people in the crowd didn’t know what to do, inspired Lisa to continue encouraging people to receive CPR training.
Such training really can mean the difference between life and death. According to the American Heart Association, about 90 percent of people who go into cardiac arrest outside a hospital die. It’s possible, however, to double or triple a person’s chance of survival if CPR is administered right away.
Lisa is planning to organize more classes this year in the hope that more people will know what to do if a cardiac arrest occurs.
“I can’t wait for the day someone tells me they took that CPR class and someone lived because of it,” she says.