Surviving Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Thanks to Cardiac Rehabilitation, He's Back on the Trail

Mike Albertson

A lifelong outdoorsman, Mike has always believed in doing "adventurous" things. And since retiring, he's taken his physical health from high gear to overdrive.

At 60, he went kayaking with friends in Baja California's Sea of Cortez, known for its spectacular whale watching. He's a devoted mountain climber, who recently trekked uphill 16 hours to reach the top of a 14,000 foot peak. He's hiked from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the North Rim – and back again – over a seven day journey. He's backpacked the 46-mile trip across Picnic Rock in Minnesuing twice. Not only has Mike run thirteen marathons and multiple 10Ks, but he's competed in three full American Birkebeiners and one quarter "Birkie."

Every year, Mike bikes 1,700 miles and walks 1,400 miles in the Green Bay area, usually accompanied by his Goldendoodle, He and his wife enjoy a permanent campsite in Wittenberg, Wisconsin, approximately 85 miles west of home.

My wife thinks I'm a little strange," said Mike. "Her idea of camping says ‘Howard Johnson's on the door."

On September 6, 2012, Mike embarked on a bike ride to the campsite, a trip he had taken alone many times before. "I make a whole day out of this trip," Mike said. "It's an event I look forward to. I'm retired, so why should I be in a hurry?"

"I sit back and enjoy the ride. It never matters to me how long it takes to get there."

Except, this time, he didn't make it to Wittenberg.

Just outside Shawano, Mike suddenly collapsed on the bike trail along Highway 29. He was in full-blown cardiac arrest.

"I had no health problems, no warning signs, no symptoms," said Mike. "One minute I was fine, and the next minute I was almost dead."

Recalled to Life

Did You Know?

Every year, 785,000 Americans have their first heart attack. Cardiac rehabilitation is critical for a patient’s full recovery, but only 12-18% of patients follow their doctor’s recommended regiment, despite the proven medical results.

How can cardiac rehab help you live well again?

  • Survival rates increase over 30%
  • Recurring heart attack risk is reduced by 25%
  • Related lifestyle changes reduce risk factors by 50% or more

Our multidisciplinary cardiac rehabilitation program, certified by the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation, offers coordinated care at 12 Wisconsin locations.

To find a convenient location close to home, ask your cardiologist or visit our website.

"I laid on that trail for six to eight minutes," said Mike, "and I'm lucky it happened when and where it happened. If I had been thirty minutes west, or further, I would have been in a very remote area."

"On the two-hour trail from Shawano to Wittenberg, I normally see only one or two people. I would have been out there, alone, for a long, long time before anyone found me."

Fortunately, a driver stopped, dialed 911 and began CPR. Officers continued CPR until an ambulance arrived. Using an automated external defibrillator (AED), emergency workers restarted Mike's heart right there on the bike trail. He was then taken to Shawano Medical Center for immediate evaluation.

When he fell off his bike, Mike suffered a small head injury – an injury that would have been much worse, had he not been wearing a helmet. "I always wear a helmet," he commented, "regardless of how short a trip I'm taking. I make sure my grandchildren do the same."

After a head scan confirmed no internal bleeding, Mike was flown by Eagle III helicopter to Aurora BayCare Medical Center, where he was treated immediately by Dr. William Witmer, interventional cardiologist.

Mike's left anterior descending (LAD) coronary artery had been abruptly and almost completely blocked. By the time he arrived at Aurora BayCare, only a small trickle of blood was circulating. "They call this the ‘widow-maker' for a reason," said Mike. "Over 90 percent of people won't survive this experience."

Mike was placed in an induced coma for 48 hours, during which his body temperature was cooled and then slowly brought back to normal. Through radial catheterization, Dr. Witmer inserted a stent that soon cleared the blocked LAD artery. Radial catheterization is a minimally invasive procedure that navigates through a patient's wrist, rather than the thigh, to clear circulatory blockage. Compared to standard catheterization, radial often has less complications, lower risk, and more comfort for the patient.

While Mike's heart showed an immediate positive response, Dr. Witmer noticed something remarkable. Despite the duration and intensity of the cardiac arrest, Mike's heart tissue was still healthy. When he woke up, he couldn't believe what had happened.

"Only 15 percent of people who have sudden cardiac death outside the hospital make it to the hospital alive. And only about half of those people will survive to leave the hospital. So, when Mike went into cardiac arrest, he only had about a 5 percent chance of survival," said Dr. Witmer.

Six days after his massive heart attack, Mike walked out of the hospital without any heart damage. "If I hadn't lived such an active lifestyle," said Mike, "I might not have been as lucky."

Back on the Trail

Without any new limits or restrictions, Mike began a twelve-week cardiac rehabilitation program, three times a week, at Aurora BayCare Medical Center. "Many patients need to be encouraged to attend rehab," said Mike, "but in my case, they were actually worried I would do too much, too soon."

During rehab, Mike's heart was monitored three times a week for stress, as he slowly but surely restored his active lifestyle.

At first, Mike was allowed to walk one accompanied mile a day, then two miles a day, and then finally back to his normal regiment. After three months, Dr. Witmer approved weightlifting and exercise classes, including core training and stationary biking.

"First, it was only 3-4 miles. By January, it was back to 10 miles, and by February, 11 miles. My goal is to be in shape for 20-25 miles a day during the outdoor season."

Today, Mike is back to walking six miles a day and biking 12 miles a day, even in the middle of winter.

"I cannot say enough about the importance of rehab," said Mike. "It has social and medical benefits. For 12 weeks, you can connect with other patients going through the same thing, build a rapport, and support each other. You can't get that togetherness at home on the couch."

"Meanwhile, you are coached and supervised by medical professionals who monitor your progress and watch for red flags. Whether or not you go to rehab could determine your whole outcome."

The Road Ahead

After surviving a cardiac event, patients often ask themselves: why?

"Anytime you have a family member with heart problems, you should start thinking about managing your own risk factors," said Mike. In 1971, Mike's father died of a heart attack at the young age of 41. "DNA is the ghost we all fight," said Mike, "and we have to do something to ward it off. We know that hereditary health conditions will show themselves eventually. We just don't know when."

"Through my active lifestyle, I prolonged my heart condition 20+ years beyond my father's."

With cardiac rehabilitation behind him, Mike has set many new goals for himself. This summer, he hopes to ride a 100-mile Minnesota bike trail. He's also planning to explore the 300-mile Superior Hiking Trail between Duluth and the Canadian border. And he's already back on the trail to Wittenberg.

"It's never too late to live well. Get out in the fresh air, enjoy the life you're given, and see the natural beauty of Wisconsin. Get moving and do something you love, as much as you can do it. I've been told I'm ‘nuts' for doing as much as I do, but I don't think I'm nuts. I think I'm on to something."

"After all, my strong heart is the reason I'm still here today."

Aurora's world-class cardiac specialists can help you live well again. We offer internationally recognized cardiac treatments, procedures, diagnostics, testing and more. Visit our website and learn more about our cardiac services and physicians, and how to get a second opinion.