Rick Parker's existence is baffling. He credits part of it to a miracle and the other part to state-of-the-art treatment given to him by McDowell County Emergency Services (EMS) paramedics.
On the night of Friday, June 12, Parker lost his life. "He was pulseless and breathless," said EMS Director William Kehler. "Medically, he was dead." Last Thursday evening, Parker, 56, and his daughter, Tonya, of Weaverville met with some of the folks who brought the heart attack victim back to life that night.
It was a reunion of sorts, but the gathering also marked the first anniversary of the local EMS's implementation of therapeutic hypothermia, a cutting-edge treatment used by only 100 EMS agencies out of 24,000 across the nation, according to EMS magazine.
Therapeutic hypothermia. Those are big words for a relatively simple procedure that could greatly increase the quality of life for heart attack patients. In layman's terms, it involves lowering a person's body temperature once he's been resuscitation from cardiac arrest. The idea behind the concept is to preserve brain and neurological function, therefore preserving the patient's quality of life. When a person becomes lifeless and is not breathing, his body temperature rises, increasing the potential for swelling in the brain and cellular damage through the body. With therapeutic hypothermia, paramedics use cold IV solutions and ice packs to drop the person's temperature to 93 degrees and maintain it.
McDowell's paramedics are the first and only in western North Carolina to use the treatment and only the second -- the first being Wake County -- in the state. Kehler added that 93.2 percent of those who have a heart attack outside a hospital setting don't survive. Nine out of 10 people who are resuscitated following cardiac arrest are brain dead, he stated. Parker's is a survival story. He and his family have a permanent camper at Burnette's Landing.
On the night of June 12, he and his wife were in McDowell and on the way to their usual walking spot at McDowell High School, but decided for the first time to just stop at Hankins Baptist Church and stroll the parking lot for 45 minutes. Shortly after 9 p.m., about 35 minutes into their walk, Parker began experiencing pain between his shoulder blades. Only seconds later, he went down. "I told my wife we only had 10 minutes to go," he stated. "That's the last thing I remember. I woke up six days later at Memorial Mission Hospital."
What he didn't know at that moment was that so many things fell into place. Mark Cline, an off-duty flight paramedic, and his wife, a nurse, from Tennessee, were visiting family in McDowell, just two doors down from the church. They heard the call, darted to the parking lot and began CPR. Hankins-North Fork firefighters arrived on the scene with a defibrillator and McDowell paramedics, trained in something most paramedics across the nation aren't, began utilizing their training skills. "You were our first patient," Paramedic Marvin Hancock told Parker. Using ice packs and 40- to 45-degree saline, they dropped Parker's body temperature to 93 degrees and feverishly worked to keep it there while en route to Memorial Mission. "Basically it sends your body into hibernation," Kehler stated.
Doctors determined that Parker needed five bypasses. "Everyone in this room is responsible for me being here," Parker told paramedics Thursday evening. "Everything was in place that night. Someone with a higher power was looking over me." Kehler said, out of less than 10 patients who have been treated with therapeutic hypothermia in McDowell, three had full recoveries. In all three cases, early CPR was also used. "Early CPR, early defibrillation and therapeutic hypothermia are responsible for (Parker's) outcome," the EMS director stated.
The near-death experience has changed Parker's life tremendously. "There's been a drastic change," he said. "I smoked for 35 years and pretty much ate and drank anything. I had gained 50 pounds. I did everything I could have done that destroys your body." Today, he has quit his two-pack-a-day habit, has lost 40-plus pounds and exercises daily. He takes medicine to control his heart rhythm. He returned to work as a car salesman part time two weeks after his surgery and full time about a month after the bypasses. His daughter said she is so thankful he was in McDowell County the night his heart gave out. Otherwise, she added, he wouldn't have received the state-of-the-art treatment that he did.
"You don't know how much we appreciate each and every one of you," she told the paramedics. "You don't know what you have done for us."