Dave Mayer, Heart Bypass Surgery

Dave Mayer remembers almost nothing about the time he nearly died of a heart attack while exercising in a pool with some very good friends on May 18.

One thing is clear, however. When the EMTs arrived and Mayer's heart was beating again, he knew the answer when they asked him which hospital he wanted: Borgess.

"I really don't remember anything after I passed out in the pool," said Mayer of the near-death experience at K Valley Orthopedics' pool on Kalamazoo's west side. "When they asked me where I wanted to go the word 'Borgess' was there."

Mayer, a 59-year-old retired Gull Lake Community Schools teacher and counselor, is alive to tell his story because of a remarkable series of events -- and people -- who were at the right place at the right time.

"It was a God-driven plan," Mayer said. "Too many things had to happen for me to be alive today."

Mayer was exercising in the K Valley pool that Thursday morning as he has done for many mornings for nearly 20 years. He had taken a position at the corner of the pool, surrounded by friends -- "a little family," he calls them -- and led by Jeff Willson, a personal athletic trainer at KVO.

Mayer knows what happened next only through what others have told him. Without warning -- there was no pain, no tingling -- his heart stopped and he turned around in the water, his eyes rolling up and his body sinking into the 3 1/2-foot-deep pool.

Others in the pool saw what was happening. Mark Boylen and Steve Weir were the first to Mayer and together they pulled him out of the water and onto the deck.

"I was leading a stretching exercise when all of the sudden I sensed a commotion in the pool," Willson said. "When I looked in the corner I couldn't see Dave -- he was under water. Then he popped up and I could see that he was unconscious. It was pretty freakish to say the least."

Willson jumped out of the pool and tried unsuccessfully to call 9-1-1 on a pool-side phone. A religious man, Willson said a quick prayer: "Dear Lord, please help me here," and ran to Mayer. "He was not conscious," Willson said. "He was so rigid that I couldn't feel a pulse in his carotid (neck artery)."

Weir, experienced in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, began chest compressions while Willson started to try and breathe air into Mayer's lungs. "When I tried to vent him it was difficult to get his jaw to relax," Willson said. "It felt like my air was not going anywhere. So I reared up and filled my lungs and exploded my breath into him seven times."

Meanwhile, KVO nurses who happened to be part of the exercise class brought an automated external defibrillator (AED) to Willson and they attached the machine to Mayer. The AED's sensors indicated that an electrical shock was needed to re-start Mayer's heart and a jolt activated. Willson said two more shocks were needed.

About that time a fire department crew arrived and took over resuscitation efforts. When a crew member detected a pulse, Willson said aloud, "Praise the Lord!"

"It was a pretty wild three or four minutes, although it seemed like a whole lot longer than that," Willson said.

In short order, Mayer was taken by ambulance to Borgess Medical Center where the ER team quickly determined that Mayer had a heart problem. They contacted Dr. Robert LaPenna, an interventional cardiologist at the Heart Center for Excellence, and Mayer was taken to the catheter lab.

"We were just getting organized when they called from the ER," LaPenna said. "At that time it was not clear that the patient had a heart problem. He came in as a possible drowning victim who was resuscitated."

When the cardiologist first saw Mayer, "he was fine and feeling good," LaPenna said. "He was a little confused about what had gone on and why."

An X-ray examination called an angiogram showed a major heart artery that was 99.9% blocked, LaPenna said, and he and his team quickly used a tiny balloon-tipped catheter to open the narrowing and then implant a stent to keep the artery open.

Before Mayer was taken into the cath lab, however, he called family and medical people to his side for a prayer.

Mayer recovered fairly quickly after the procedure, called angioplasty, but the fact that an irregular heart beat also played a role in his heart attack meant that he needed to have a pace-maker implanted in his chest. The device will help keep his heart beating regularly and monitor his heart rate. If his heart were to beat irregularly again, the device would automatically shock his heart back to a normal rhythm. He will need the device for the rest of his life.

Mayer is enormously grateful for the care he received at KVO and Borgess.

"The boys in the cath lab said I had what is called a widow-maker," he said. "They said that 96% of people who have what I had died before they got to the hospital and half of those who do make it to the hospital die anyway.”

"This isn't about me," he said of his decision to tell his story publicly. "It's about the good people around me, the people who saved my life" -- friends Steve and Mark, Willson, the nurses, the fire and EMT crews, LaPenna, the medical teams at Borgess.

And God. "It's amazing how He orchestrated this one," Mayer said.

LaPenna downplayed his role -- "It's what I'm trained to do and we do (angioplasty) all day long" -- but acknowledged that it took a series of miracles to keep Mayer alive. "I see miracles occasionally, but not three," LaPenna said. "Someone had to pull him from the pool, there had to be an AED close by and the ER had to diagnose the heart problem."

LaPenna said that when a heart goes into an irregular beat, called ventricular tachycardia, the person usually passes out within 7 to 8 seconds. For every second or two thereafter without emergency treatment the person's chances of survival decreases by about 1%, he said. "After 100 seconds, without help, a person's chances of survival are almost nil."

A native of Kalamazoo, Mayer was born at Borgess on April 6, 1947, and spent his adult life in education. He was a middle-school teacher and counselor at Gull Lake for more than 30 years before retiring a year ago.

Since retirement he has been trained as a suicide prevention counselor for Gryphon Place and speaks to students at schools throughout the county.

He said that he has always felt healthy and that his blood cholesterol and blood pressure have been in normal ranges. He has a medical physical annually and there was never a sign of an impending heart problem. LaPenna told him, however, that a stress test likely would have suggested a problem and that a follow-up exam may have uncovered the narrowed heart arteries.

Mayer said he now urges others to get a thorough physical -- and several friends have since seen their doctors. He has also become a strong advocate for the placement of AED units in all public places.

He praised the Borgess staff and described LaPenna as a kind and caring physician who never seems in a hurry and is patient answering questions.

"Dr. LaPenna told me that the heart attack I had was not rare, but that when he sees an outcome like mine he and the others at Borgess are over-joyed."

Mayer said he considers himself a religious man and that he was ready to die if it was his time. But since it wasn't his time he figures that God has other plans for him.

"As you go through life you begin to understand priorities," Mayer said. "Teachers sometimes don't get a lot of credit, but teaching is so fulfilling in so many ways.”

"And now, all the special people I've met, the special relationships I made over the years, are coming back. I am so touched by the cards and letter and prayers. It overwhelms me.”

"I am so blessed."

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