Health: The day before an examination, his heart stopped

Scott Kern didn’t have much time to practice.

As an executive at a chain of discount stores, he got to work early to get a head start on an often 12-hour workday. His drive was to get home early enough to see his little daughter Katie before she went to bed.

Scott was in relatively good shape. He grew up playing sports but hasn’t exercised regularly for many years. He knew he could handle losing a few pounds.

His wife Trisha was more health conscious. She introduced him to healthier meals and often encouraged him to exercise. She was particularly concerned, fearing what might already be lurking on his body. She knew Scott had a family history of heart disease. His maternal grandfather died of cardiac arrest at the age of 52. Additionally, Scott grew up on a diet of traditional New Orleans cuisine, which included lots of butter and fried foods.

In 2018, Scott made a New Year’s resolution to get healthy.

He started getting up even earlier than usual so he could have time to go to the gym. Several days a week, he lifted weights and then hopped on an elliptical trainer. The cardio part felt harder than he remembered.

“I must be really out of shape,” thought the then 43-year-old.

He recalled that a company bonus was a full health check by a concierge doctor. He made an appointment for February 20th.

On February 19, Scott went to the gym and then was at work by 7am. Some of his colleagues were already seated at their desks.

Scott went to his office and collapsed.

Several people heard him hit the ground and ran to him. When they saw that he wasn’t breathing, they called 911. The group included Dan Hay and Jermaine Bennett, who were trained in CPR. The duo immediately attempted to revive Scott.

Another worker grabbed an AED from the wall. An acronym for automated external defibrillator, an AED is a wearable electronic device that analyzes the heart’s rhythm and can deliver a shock if necessary to try to restore a normal rhythm. No one knew how to operate it, so they were relieved that once opened, the device talked them through each step.

An ambulance arrived within minutes. Paramedics took Scott to the nearest hospital, just a few miles away.

Because Scott couldn’t breathe on his own, doctors put him on a ventilator and put him in a medically induced coma. Hours turned into days that turned into more than a week.

During that time, a doctor told Trisha, “His MRI is fine, but he’ll probably never wake up.”

“There’s no way I’m giving up hope,” she replied. “My husband is coming home.”

As she drove to the hospital each morning, Trisha belted out what has become an inspirational anthem for many: “Fight Song.”

“I had to prepare for whatever was in front of me,” she said. “I had to stand up for him every day. It was really, really hard.”

Doctors and Trisha tried unsuccessfully to wake Scott from his coma several times. It finally happened on day 10 – the day Katie turned 5 years old. Her birthday wish came true.

Despite being conscious, Scott remained on a ventilator while doctors tried to figure out what caused his cardiac arrest. The coma had prevented her from doing certain tests.

The doctors determined that he had had a heart attack. It was caused by blockages in two of his heart arteries. Doctors restored proper blood flow by inserting two stents via a catheterization procedure. Doctors also determined that Scott had developed a rare complication: an infection in his lungs, likely caused by food debris lodged there during CPR.

After several weeks in the ICU, Scott was transferred to another hospital for a longer recovery. The ventilator was eventually removed six weeks after his heart attack and cardiac arrest.

“The ventilator was the worst part of the whole experience,” he said.

Scott lost a lot of motor function. He could neither write nor walk.

While he was still on the ventilator, Trisha had brought him magnetic children’s alphabet charts so he could spell words. With inpatient physical therapy, he was able to write again and slowly began to use his legs.

At the end of April Scott went home.

At first he used a wheelchair or a walker and was dependent on supplemental oxygen. Trisha put a chair on the landing so he could stop halfway and rest.

In June of this year he began participating in cardiac rehabilitation. The training gave him the confidence to get his heart rate up without fear of risking his health.

In July he returned part-time. He was working full-time through September — just at different times than before his heart attack and cardiac arrest.

“I’m not going to be the first person to work — ever,” Scott said. “First I do sports and have breakfast with my daughter before she goes to school.”

Scott and Trisha have also begun spreading the word about heart disease, lifestyle changes, and CPR and AED awareness. Scott credits Hay, Bennett, and other colleagues with saving his life. The couple have become involved with their local office of the American Heart Association. Scott was Chair of the Hampton Roads Heart Walk in 2020 and will soon be Chair of the Executive Board of Directors.

Scott has followed Trisha’s example and is eating mostly plant-based. He continues to train almost every day.

In addition to spending quality time with Katie, Scott and Trisha prioritize their relationship.

“We’re creating a lot of white space on the calendar just for us,” she said.

Between a healthier work-life balance, a renewed commitment to his health, and closer ties to his family and community, Scott is proud of how things have panned out.

“I feel better than ever,” he said, “completely energized.”

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