- Associated Press - Monday, February 24, 2014

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) - One of the last vivid memories that Rich Thies has from Aug. 13 is dialing 911 on his cellphone to report his own heart attack.

The 48-year-old from Otsego was dying outside a St. Cloud business. He had a complete blockage of one of the three main arteries in his chest and a 95 percent blockage of another.

Without immediate care, that combination is typically fatal, and swiftly so.

The intervention that saved Thies’ life was quicker, came initially by chance and from a series of strangers, some who do that for a living and others who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Doctors rarely see a patient survive the “widowmaker” heart attack that Thies had without immediate medical care.

“I was given a second chance for a reason. I’m not going to blow it. It’s a whole new world,” he told the St. Cloud Times (http://on.sctimes.com/1bVPvl4), reflecting on what happened that day and since.

He has made it a mission to meet everyone who helped him. He has shared hugs and vows to take each one to dinner as a small sign of his thanks.

He also has attended the funeral of the first person who showed up to help that day.

“That’s what makes this whole story so extremely unusual,” he said, his voice heavy with emotion. “A guy saves your life and then two months later, his own life is taken.”

A hydraulic repairman for Pirtek, Thies was at Landwehr Construction in south St. Cloud that muggy August day for a service call. Late in the afternoon, he got into his company van to head home.

The air was heavy, the region in the midst of a stretch of mid-80s to mid-90s heat. As he was leaving the parking lot, he began to feel hot, a searing shot of pain running through his chest.

He pulled over on the driveway leading out of Landwehr, thinking a little cool air from his air conditioning would make him feel better.

“It didn’t,” he said. “It kept getting worse. It felt like someone was standing on my chest. A very intense pain. And I remember thinking that this isn’t good.”

He made a call on his cellphone.

“911, what’s the address of your emergency?”

“Uh, I’m in, I’m in the Landwehr, Land- Landwehr’s driveway,” he struggled to say. “I think I’m having a heart attack.”

Joanne Weeres has been a Stearns County dispatcher for 20 years, which means she has heard all kinds of emergency calls -from the strange to the tragic to the joyous.

She’s helped deliver babies, coach CPR and counsel helpful strangers thrown into life-or-death scenarios. She does it with a veteran’s calm.

The call from Thies was a challenge, though. He was alone in an area where he might not be seen and was calling in his own serious medical emergency.

“It’s usually someone calling for them,” Weeres said. “That’s why the urgency was there to honk your horn, flash your lights. Let’s do something to get somebody else over there to help you. Because there’s not much you can do to help yourself.”

Thies, struggling to stay on his feet, can be heard on the 911 call moaning as Weeres assures him that help is on the way.

At times, she repeatedly calls for him, getting no response through the phone. It was an ominous silence.

“My gut was telling me he is deteriorating quickly.”

The man driving the 250-ton crane back into Landwehr at end of the work day happened upon Thies, who was outside his van and waving his arms.

Cory Lewellin rushed over to him and took the cellphone. Weeres felt a sense of relief.

“Thank God that someone saw him,” she said. “That was my first goal, to get him some help.”

She told Lewellin that help was on the way and that he should check to see if Thies was conscious and breathing. There wasn’t any need for chest compressions if he was still breathing.

Thies remembers passing his cellphone to Lewellin, a man he had met on previous service calls for the “big boy” crane that Lewellin drove. A second man who stopped by to help remembers seeing Thies pass the phone to Lewellin.

It wasn’t long after that when Thies dropped to his knees, then fell to the ground, face down.

Tom Martins is the lead store technician at Royal Tire in south St. Cloud. He was at Landwehr that day to drop off a vehicle that had been serviced at Royal. He was heading back to the shop when he saw Thies and Lewellin at the side of the driveway.

He thought they were just talking until he got closer and realized that Thies was in distress. He saw Lewellin take the phone from Thies.

“He was still alert and talking,” Martins said of Thies. “He was standing up. And moments after that he just went ‘whoosh.’”

With Thies on the ground and Lewellin on the phone with Weeres, Martins helped roll Thies over and make sure he was still breathing. Thies was convulsing and trying to get back up on his feet. He was breathing, but struggling.

“We just kept checking his pulse and doing what she told us to,” Martins said. “And then he got there.”

“He” is Officer Alec Elness, who was in the area of St. Cloud State University when he got the emergency call. It took him a minute or so to get to Landwehr, where he was met by St. Cloud firefighters. They hooked Thies to an automated external defibrillator (AED), which told them to shock.

Within 2-3 shocks, the AED usually either returns a pulse to the patient or tells you the patient can’t be saved.

Elness said the AED kept telling him that Thies had a chance. He shocked Thies 6-8 times.

“I’ve never seen someone shocked that many times before,” Elness said.

There were other things that stood out to Elness. Thies was only 47, an age when a serious heart attack usually is immediately disabling. Yet Thies was able to call 911 himself.

He had endured numerous shocks and was convulsing during the shocks, as if in a fight-or-flight mode. Elness started chest compressions, wondering what to make of all of the firsts he was seeing.

“Things like that can be pretty chaotic,” he said. “Everybody just grabs a job and starts doing it.”

Then Gold Cross Ambulance personnel arrived and took over. It would take another half-dozen shocks with the AED before Thies arrived at St. Cloud Hospital, alive and awake.

St. Cloud Hospital interventional cardiologist Dr. Howard Zimring still remembers Thies, months after caring for him.

Thies came to the hospital with the classic widowmaker heart attack, which was confirmed within 10 minutes of his arrival through an angiogram.

The survival rate for that type of heart attack is less than 1 percent if the patient doesn’t get medical attention within about 3-5 minutes, Zimring said.

If a patient doesn’t have long periods where blood isn’t flowing to the brain and if he or she arrives with a stable and sound blood pressure, there’s more like a 90 percent chance of saving the patient.

“His case is memorable in that all of the pieces fell into place like they could to help him,” Zimring said. “He was very close to not having a chance of recovering.”

Thies went into surgery immediately, where Zimring inserted a stent into his blocked artery. A couple of days later, a second operation would insert another stent into the almost-blocked second artery.

A follow-up test in October showed that Thies had a heart that was functioning almost normally, Zimring said. The longer recovery, Thies said, was healing the seven ribs broken during the chest compressions.

“No lifting, no laughing,” Thies said of his recovery from the broken ribs. “No politics.”

Thies knew, even before he was discharged from the hospital, that he had to find the strangers who saved his life.

“That was my goal,” he said. “I had to find out who all helped.”

He went back to Landwehr Construction to meet Lewellin about two weeks after his release from the hospital.

“Got the big hug, and I thanked him,” Thies said.

But the joy of finding the man who was the first to respond to his distress signal turned to sorrow just weeks later. Lewellin was working in that same 250-ton crane at St. Paul Hmong Alliance Church in Maplewood in October when the crane tipped, killing Lewellin.

Thies went to Lewellin’s funeral and has Lewellin and his family in his thoughts every day. “Here he helped save your life, and two months later he’s tragically killed in an accident,” Thies said. “It’s hard to grasp.”

Three months removed from his heart attack, Thies still didn’t know that Martins was the second Good Samaritan who stopped that day to help him. He knew Elness was the officer because Elness stopped at the hospital to check on Thies after surgery.

“I always knew there was a third one,” Thies said.

It was during a return trip to Landwehr that one of the employees recalled seeing a Royal Tire truck there that day. He suggested that Thies check with them. That’s when it clicked for Thies.

He raced to the business and walked into the lobby of the service department. He didn’t need any tires, he told an employee, but he did need a little help.

Thies walked into the service area and up to Martins.

“He asked if I knew who he was,” Martins said. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ It was shocking.”

Martins had been scouring obituaries in the paper for two weeks, expecting to see a notice about the man he tried to help but who he was certain had died. It was almost as if he was seeing a ghost the day Thies walked into his shop.

“I’m just speechless about the whole thing,” Martins said. “Wow, was that a shock.”

Everything has changed for Thies, who said that before his heart attack he could tell you what was in the No. 2 meal at several fast-food restaurants. Gone are the cigarettes and alcohol. He works out, “lives on rabbit food” and has lost 58 pounds, he said.

He now doesn’t fight other drivers on the road for spots in traffic, holds the door open for strangers entering buildings and takes his time in everything he does.

“You just look at the world differently now,” he said. “Everything is different. I take nothing for granted.”

As strange as it sounds, he doesn’t have any lasting effects from the heart attack and is back at Pirtek without restrictions on what he can do, he said.

He does see the doctor with a little more regularity, though. He didn’t have any symptoms before the day he had his heart attack, but he also hadn’t seen a doctor in years.

“I’m a guy. It’s on our man card,” he said, laughing. “You’re not supposed to do that.”

Thies jokes that his wife is in love with three people who aren’t him - Elness, Martins and Lewellin. The couple is adamant about showing their gratitude to the strangers who saved Thies.

And most of them wouldn’t have known he had made it had Thies not sought them out to thank them. Once a patient is taken to the hospital, an officer doesn’t necessarily follow up on the patient’s outcome.

When Weeres hangs up with a 911 medical call, it’s rare that she finds out what happens to the patient.

“Sometimes when I hear a save, I want to go home and think, ‘That was a save,’ ” she said. “And that’s OK with me, because we handle so many terrible calls. When I heard that this gentleman had survived, I mean, I didn’t know that. And that made me feel great.”

She called the whole ordeal a “beautiful chain of events that ended up in a great outcome.”

Zimring agreed.

“It’s nice to see the system work right.”

And for Thies, a new lease on life also comes with a debt to the man who saw him in distress and was the first to stop and help. He’ll never be able to repay Lewellin and the others adequately, he said.

“How can you repay someone for saving your life?”

___

Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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