On Jan. 3, Dirk Leach defied the odds.
Dirk, a 57-year-old in seemingly good health, returned from a 2.5-mile run and sat down to help his son Derek, 15, with his math homework.
That’s when Dirk, a retired nuclear engineer, suddenly collapsed. Derek called out the window for his mom Carol, who ran in and started CPR while Derek dialed 911. Dirk began turning blue less than a minute after going into sudden cardiac arrest.
Iredell County Emergency Communications personnel gave the Leaches instructions and comfort until nine Mt. Mourne Volunteer Fire Department first-responders arrived five minutes later. They defibrillated Dirk twice before they got a pulse.
EMS medics Toby Nicholson and Tiffany Jones and shift supervisor Jason Little soon arrived. They immediately began advanced life-support protocol.
At this point, Dirk was bending his arms toward his body, and his wrists and fingers bent inward toward his chest. According to the National Institutes of Health, this posturing is “a sign of severe damage in the brain.”
Because Dirk was so unstable, they transported him to the nearest facility, Lake Norman Regional Medical Center, for initial treatment.
“People told me later that when they saw me being carried out to the ambulance, they did not think I would be coming back,” he said.
Carol added: “Some neighbors even discussed how they were going to help me raise Derek as a widow.”
For the next 36 hours, doctors at LNRMC kept Leach in a “cool coma,” or therapeutic hypothermia, to lower his body’s core temperature to between 89 and 93 degrees. According to Medical News Today, this procedure protects the body following a period of weak blood flow. Patients who receive this treatment have improved survival rates and reduced brain damage.
Dirk credits the quick work of LNRMC staff with giving him a chance to see his son graduate high school. When visiting after his recovery, “the staff told me that I lived was a miracle because so few survive” this type of massive heart attack.
Carol shared statistics from a recent Wall Street Journal article to emphasize the importance of quick, advanced care for patients like her husband. “There are about 1,000 sudden cardiac arrests that occur outside of a hospital each day in America. Of those, only about 10.6 percent survive. You also have a 90 percent chance of dying in the first ten minutes after suffering a heart attack.”
Transferred two days later to Carolinas Medical Center to treat what was initially thought to be an electrical problem requiring a pacemaker, Leach soon discovered how truly lucky he was to be alive.
During a catheterization, doctors discovered two blockages, one closing 95 percent of an artery. Cardiologists nickname this heart condition “the widow-maker.”
“I was awake during the procedure and saw the blockage,” Dirk said. “The doctor looked at me and said, ‘How do you feel about double bypass surgery tomorrow morning?’ ”
Recovery was surprisingly fast after this major surgery, although “I woke up after surgery feeling like an elephant was sitting on my chest!” he added.
Only three days later, he left the hospital to head home.
His cardiologist said Leach made a “10 out of 10” recovery. He got the all clear to begin running again, now accompanied by what he laughingly calls his “bodyguard,” Carol. Though 15 pounds lighter, Dirk feels healthy, bothered only by occasional discomfort in the bypass incision area.
In retrospect, he recalls subtle signs of angina-like symptoms, but the heart attack was “a complete and utter surprise.” Some people need a knock on the head to see the signs of heart trouble, Dirk said, “but apparently I needed a brick!”
“I ran. I lifted weights. I ate healthy food. I didn’t drink or smoke,” he continued. He never expected such dangerous heart problems with his healthy lifestyle.
On Monday evening, Dirk thanked the Mt. Mourne VFD, Iredell County Emergency Medical Service responders, and Iredell County Emergency Communications personnel for their extraordinary efforts.
Choking up, he said, “Thank you for saving my life. I would not be here without all of you.”
He stressed the importance of properly staffing the Mt. Mourne VFD and other county emergency facilities at all times because “heart attacks happen when they want to happen.”
Carol praised all the emergency personnel, saying, “You are such an important part of our lives, of the fabric of our community. You impact lives. You keep daddies alive to see their kids grow up. Everything you do is audacious!”
EMS shift supervisor Jason Little spoke of the constant desire to improve that drives all emergency personnel. “We have a new medical director (Howard Mell), who is always searching for ways to deliver better patient outcomes. We are participating in studies to improve care. For example, we now can use meds that we didn’t have access to when we treated Mr. Leach just two months ago.”
Mt. Mourne VFD Chief Roger Hoover added, “So many things can affect response time, such as the heavy traffic in our area and the large number of calls. We are lucky to have the support to keep enough paid staff on duty at all times.”
Hoover also thanked the Emergency Communications personnel “who make our jobs possible. They sit in small, dark rooms with so many agencies to dispatch in very high stress situations.”
Addressing the Leaches, Hoover expressed appreciation for their “thank you tour” of all those who helped save Dirk’s life. “Not many come to personally express their thanks for our work. It means a lot to us.”