Spectrum Health Patient Survives Heart Stopping 52 Times

Quick Action, Technology Aids In Full Recovery

According to Tom Torresson – a 39-year-old volunteer firefighter, advertising executive, outdoors enthusiast, husband and father of three on Monday, March 30, 2009, he nearly died 52 times.

The East Grand Rapids resident required defibrillation – the shocking of his heart to start it beating or beating with a normal rhythm – fifty-two times during emergency treatment at the Spectrum Health Medical Center.

Torresson was active and had no history of heart disease. Yet after returning from a five-mile bike ride around Reeds Lake, Torresson recalls that he just didn’t feel right. “I didn’t think it was a heart attack. As a firefighter, I’m a first responder so I know the classic signs. But I knew something was wrong.”

Rather than driving to the hospital, he called 911, a decision that probably saved his life. En route to the hospital, Torresson experienced cardiac arrest – his heart stopped pumping blood. He lost consciousness and stopped breathing. The ambulance pulled over, paramedics used a defibrillator to shock his heart back into rhythm and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was initiated.

Torresson’s heart would beat for a moment or two and then falter, requiring additional defibrillating shocks followed by more CPR.

His problems continued in the emergency department. Torresson’s ventricular fibrillation – a chaotic arrhythmia that starves the brain and body of oxygen – kept reoccurring. Doctors were forced to shock Torresson’s heart another two dozen times, according to his cardiologist, Richard McNamara, MD, Spectrum Health chief of cardiology. CPR was continued, but Torresson remained unresponsive.

‘”Few people survive what he went through,” said McNamara. “Those who do tend to have significant heart and brain damage. Only about five percent have a full recovery. So I met with Tom’s wife to prepare her for the worst.”

After talking with Jen Torresson about her husband’s age, his good health and how many times his heart withstood defibrillation, Dr. McNamara decided he would use all the technology at his disposal to increase Torresson’s chances of survival.

Torresson was moved from the emergency department to the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center’s cardiac catheterization laboratory. There, a 100 percent blockage in one of his coronary arteries was cleared by Dr. McNamara using a stent.

His heartbeat, however, remained out of control – stopping another 25 times and requiring 25 additional jolts from the defibrillator. In an attempt to regain a normal rhythm, Meijer Heart Center colleague and cardiac electrophysiologist Darryl Elmouchi, MD, was brought in and worked with McNamara to try “overdrive pacing” – increasing the heart rate to suppress the arrhythmia. It worked.

When the cardiac team finally stabilized Torresson, they took a relatively new approach in helping his heart recover. They lowered his body temperature, giving him a paralytic drug to keep him from shivering and put him into a medically induced coma. The therapy also reduced the potential for Torresson’s brain to swell dangerously – a problem that can occur with prolonged oxygen deprivation.

Torresson spent almost a week in the cardiac intensive care unit. “Then, it was time for the moment of truth,” McNamara said. “We needed to allow Tom to come out of his medically induced coma and see what brain function was saved by our efforts. When he came out of it, we were amazed. He was back to normal.”

Torresson’s recovery was quick. Within days he was playing poker with his buddies in the visitors’ lounge.

As news of Torresson’s recovery spread, “people from all over the hospital, and I’m talking about medical professionals, kept stopping by to meet Tom and see with their own eyes that he had actually survived,” said Jen Torresson.

After several weeks at home, Torresson began cardiac rehabilitation. Today, he remains active and kicked off the summer by going camping and kayaking with his family. He also has been cleared to return to firefighting and his passion, scuba diving.

“What amazes me the most is that no one gave up on me,” says Torresson. “There were so many times during those first few hours that they could have declared me dead, but they kept pushing for the miracle.”

Spectrum Health is a not-for-profit health system in West Michigan that offers a full continuum of care through the Spectrum Health Hospital Group, a collection of seven hospitals and more than 140 service sites; the Spectrum Health Medical Group and’ mmpc, multispecialty physician groups with more than 400 providers; and Priority Health, a health plan with nearly 500,000 members. Spectrum Health’s 16,000 employees, 1,500 medical staff members and 2,000 volunteers are committed to delivering the highest quality care. The organization provided $111.1 million in community benefit during its 2008 fiscal year. As a system, Spectrum Health has earned more than 100 awards during the past 10 years.