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When Billy Demarest passed out in his basement, with clogged arteries and a heart going haywire, his chances of survival seemed slim.
Twice, he came close to being on the wrong side of the American Heart Association statistic that says nine out of every 10 people who suffer a sudden cardiac arrest like his don’t make it. Billy stopped breathing while he was at home and again on the operating table.
Near-total blockages in his arteries caused a massive heart attack, which in turn led to sudden cardiac arrest, his doctor said.
But within hours of the double whammy, the seemingly healthy 45-year-old Spotsylvania County man was awake, alert and wondering what the heck had happened.
Aside from initial short-term memory lapses—his wife, Sarah, teases about how many times he asked why rescuers cut off his favorite flannel shirt—Billy doesn’t seem to have any neurological damage.
“This is truly a miracle,” his wife said, recalling the different doctors who visited his hospital room and said it was a wonder he was there at all, much less without brain damage.
With each passing conversation, the couple realized that every person in their path did what was needed to save Billy’s life. It started with their sons Will and Jacob, 14 and 12, who recognized something was wrong and got their mom, who then resurrected the CPR skills she had learned in high school.
It continued with fire and rescue workers who got to Billy’s side quickly, and on-call cardiologists at Mary Washington Hospital who were ready to perform an intervention as soon as he arrived.
While Sarah repeatedly went out of her way to thank everyone who saved her husband’s life, Dr. Ashok Prasad said the perfect sequence of events started in her home.
“The first true hero of this whole story was the family,” the cardiologist said. “But I think it does take a village sometimes to do the right thing, and it really was because of the concerted effort of everyone who made contact with Mr. Demarest doing the right thing the right way that we had a good outcome.”
‘THERE’S NO WORDS’
Last weekend, the front lawn of the Demarest house in Salem Fields was filled with decorations recognizing that “not all heroes wear capes.” Red balloons in the shape of hearts or white ones with lines depicting the waves of heart activity blew in the breeze, and a sign listed the word “thank you” in several languages.
Billy walked out the front door, and about 30 friends, neighbors and hospital workers gathered in the cul-de-sac applauded. He gave a little wave, sat in the camping chair Sarah had put out for him and tried to express the range of emotions he and his family have dealt with since he almost died on Oct. 28.
“It’s completely surreal; even all the attention is a little weird for me,” he said, adding it’s as if he read about someone else’s life-and-death experience. “There’s no words for thanking someone for saving your life. I keep trying to find something to say, but the words just fall short.”
First responders from Spotsylvania Fire and Rescue Station 10, about half a mile from their home, came by fire truck and ambulance for the happy event. Normally, they see people at their worst—and never know the rest of the story.
David Noack, who was the lead medic on Billy’s call, said he’s been in that line of work for 10 years and never met someone who walked out of the hospital after a cardiac arrest.
“We never, ever get to do this,” he said.
Robert Jones, a firefighter who wasn’t on the initial call, came along because he wanted to shake Billy’s hand.
“I’ve heard the stories,” he said. “It’s nice to see you.”
The Demarests visited Station 10 on Friday, Nov. 13, to thank responders and dispatchers, then invited them to their front yard the next Sunday for the drive-thru celebration.
The couple know a lot of medical people who are fellow soccer parents, including some who will help Billy with rehab to rebuild his heart muscle. The hospital workers joined neighbors, who set up a table with cupcakes decorated with hearts and a giant cookie with the words: “I believe in miracles.”
“To look at him, you would not believe what he’s been through,” said neighbor Tammie Mikulas. “Just like the cookie said, it is a miracle. It’s the craziest thing ever.”
‘SHOCKED US ALL’
Billy Demarest is a certified public accountant who normally commutes to Washington, but has been working from home since March. Three days before he passed out, he and Sarah celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary. He’d also been to a pumpkin patch with other family members, who saw no shortness of breath, no outward signs that anything was wrong.
“It absolutely shocked us all,” said his brother-in-law, Ryan Champney.
The morning of Oct. 28, Billy said he didn’t feel right. He called out sick for the rest of the afternoon and napped for more than three hours.
Then, Billy put on his favorite brown plaid flannel shirt and went to the basement to help Will with schoolwork. The two goofed around for about 10 minutes, sat down, and Will wondered why his dad was making silly faces at him.
When his father’s head tipped back, Will ran up the steps, telling his mom that “something’s wrong with Daddy.”
Billy was “flopped over, completely unconscious” when Sarah got to him. Will called 911 and at the dispatcher’s suggestion, Jacob helped his mom get his dad on the floor, tilt him to his side and then roll him on his back when his breathing didn’t resume.
Sarah started CPR, forcing herself to remember the steps from the class she took in high school. She knew, in recent years, the American Heart Association has stressed doing chest compressions to the beat of “Staying Alive,” but for the life of her, she couldn’t remember how the song went.
Still, she put one hand on top of the other and started pressing.
“I heard like, a snap and a crack, and the dispatcher said, ‘You’re doing it right,’ ” Sarah recalled.
When paramedics arrived, they asked her to leave the basement. She’d been running on adrenalin up to that point, then realized her husband’s heart had stopped for at least four minutes.
“He was literally dead, and they didn’t want me to see them shocking him and all that,” she said. “I remember going outside, and I broke down and lost it.”
Rescuers shocked Billy’s heart back into a normal rhythm and alerted Mary Washington. Interventional cardiologists are on call around the clock to perform measures needed in such cases, and Dr. Prithviraj Rai, Prasad’s associate at Oracle Heart & Vascular, was waiting for Billy.
Tests showed all four arteries were blocked between 75 percent and 100 percent. Had Billy had symptoms beforehand, cardiologists would have scheduled bypass surgery, but didn’t have time for that in the emergency situation, Prasad said.
Rai put a stent in the artery that had caused the massive heart attack, and Prasad helped do the same to a second one. They also put in a balloon pump to support his heartbeat and blood pressure. Billy was sedated, with a tube down his throat and hooked to a ventilator, which breathed for him.
About 10:30 p.m., the cardiologists updated Sarah and suggested there could be neurological damage. Billy’s heart had stopped beating, again, during the procedure.
“I wasn’t very optimistic about him making it through the night,” she recalled. “I thought: Even if he does pull through, is he going to be brain dead?”
She went home. When her phone rang at 1 a.m., she expected the worst.
Instead, two nurses were on the line, sounding surprisingly upbeat.
They told her Billy had awakened and was quite unhappy about having a tube down his throat. Even though doctors wanted him sedated through the night to rest his heart, “he’s not having it,” they said. He wanted to talk to his wife—and he was adamant about it.
The nurses put him on speaker and he said, “Hi, hon,” as if he’d been delayed in traffic.
Then he wanted to know “WTF” had happened. As she described the situation, his first response was that he needed to call his boss and tell him he couldn’t work the next day.
“I said, Oh, my God, who cares about work? You’re alive,” Sarah said. “The nurses were laughing; it was just crazy.”
Billy stayed in the hospital for seven days and came home with a life vest that his wife describes as “a bra with a built-in defibrillator.” He’ll need rehabilitation to strengthen his heart, more procedures to unblock the clogged arteries and tests to figure out if there were genetic factors or other underlying issues that caused him to have both a massive heart attack and a sudden cardiac arrest.
Doctors typically describe a heart attack as a plumbing problem: when arteries are blocked, the heart muscle is deprived of vital blood and oxygen, and the heart begins to die. A cardiac arrest is more electrical in nature; a person’s heart isn’t pumping blood, and normal breathing stops.
“His plumbing problem caused the electrical problem,” Prasad said. “When something happens to the heart muscle that’s so catastrophic, it can actually reflect back and damage the electrical system as well.”
Billy’s mother, Carol Demarest, could barely speak when asked her thoughts about what happened to her son. She got out the words, “It was terrifying,” before her eyes filled with tears.
A couple minutes later, she tapped a reporter on the shoulder and said: “Please thank all the people who prayed for him.”