One day in 1994, the doorbell rang at Fred and Linda Smith’s home. To their surprise, a familiar police officer’s face greeted them with a big smile as he pointed to a red bar pinned to his uniform. That red bar was an award for saving Fred’s life after sudden cardiac arrest.
Retired wedding photographers, Fred and Linda do everything together from building a business, traveling the world, hiking the Rocky Mountains, ushering minor league baseball games and transporting rental cars across town. Always on the go, the Smiths maintained a healthy, active lifestyle.
One Sunday evening as they began watching a movie, Linda noticed Fred’s leg quivering.
“She asked me ‘what’s wrong?’ I said ‘nothing’ and my arms and face turned blue. She called 911,” Fred said.
The police arrived first and began checking on Fred. To the trained eye, he was dead by all accounts.
“The officer said he’d seen a lot of dead people, and I was as dead as anyone he’d ever seen.”
As the officer turned to console Linda, something told him to start CPR. When the medics arrived, the officer was still giving compressions. The medics pulled out the shock paddles and brought the beat back to Fred’s heart.
“I didn’t wake up until Tuesday,” Fred said. “My doctor, Dr. Wheelan, cardiologist on the medical staff of Baylor Jack and Jane Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital, and the paramedic who worked on me told me that the only reason I’m alive is because the police officer started CPR,” Fred recounted gratefully.
“Another interesting thing was that down the street from our house is a railroad. Every Sunday night at 9 p.m., a train comes through, stops and switches tracks,” Fred said. “But, not that night. The paramedics knew about this, too. They said if a train had been on those tracks, I wouldn’t have made it. God was looking over me.”
Up until then, Fred never had heart problems nor was there a family history. But after this incident, Dr. Wheelan said it was time for an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD). Fred recalls his doctor’s foreboding words, “It’s happened once. It will happen again.”
ICD’s are small devices used to prevent sudden death in those with fibrillation or sustained ventricular tachycardia.
“The only question I had was will I still be able to climb and hike the Rocky Mountains in Colorado?” Fred said.
“If your ICD doesn’t keep you alive in Colorado, it won’t keep you alive here,” Dr. Wheelan said.
Today Fred is on his fourth ICD. The first one was as big as a wallet. Now, it’s thinner, lighter and as small as a business card.
Dr. Wheelan was right, it happened again in July 1995 when Fred and Linda were hiking on a mountain and were three to four hours away from everything.
“We were walking through an abandoned mine. Just as we started walking down the mountain, my heart quit and the ICD shocked me back to life,” Fred said. “The shock – I didn’t feel it because I was out. I was driving the dune buggy and I blacked out. We had just come down a steep decline. I was going across a level spot on the mountain. I think about what if it had happened moments earlier.”
“The ICD has made me enjoy life more simply because of the confidence I have in it,” Fred said. “I don’t worry about it. I don’t like the shock, but it’s there if I need it. No matter where I am, it’s with me. I always tell people in the classes that I don’t like the shock, but I’m glad to be here to complain about it.”
Today Fred and Linda volunteer at Baylor Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital and visit with patients who need to get an ICD or who already have one. They also speak to people at the Wired for LifeTM classes which are complimentary, half-day classes for ICD patients.
Fred recounted two patient stories that stood out with him.
A 78-year-old man refused to accept that he needed to have an ICD. His son called the Smiths into the hallway and told them what was going on. The Smiths shared with his father what all they still do in their active lives with their friends, family and grandkids.
“When we were leaving, he asked if we would come back to see him. When we returned for our visit, he was sitting up in bed, looking at the door as if he were waiting for us to arrive. He told them that he had just told his doctor that he had decided to get his ICD,” Fred remembered with tears filling his eyes.
Another patient story that still chokes Fred up was this older man whose wife was in a nursing home whom he visited three times a day. When the Smiths knocked on his hospital room door, there was no answer. As they walked in, they found him behind the door, on his knees up against a chair praying. He got so excited when we came in. He said ‘It’s just amazing! I was praying that God would tell me what to do.’ He was so worried about not seeing his wife.
“It’s moments like that…that’s our reward,” Fred said.
The seconds in which that police officer acted that brought back Fred’s heartbeat; the life Fred continues to live because of his ICD; the patients he and Linda encourage to live their lives with an IDC – all are life’s rewards when there’s a shock to the heart.