Marathoner’s heart stops while running amid ER nurses

Greg Woodman’s last thought before collapsing from cardiac arrest was to get off the road and closer to the sand at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Woodman, 65, was running the Presque Isle Half Marathon July 16 with two of his sons, Joe and Nate. They raced together for a couple of miles, then he told them to go ahead at their normal pace.

The next time he saw them was in the emergency department.

“The last thing I remember was talking with a guy running with a stroller next to me near the four-mile mark,” Woodman said. “It was getting warm and I felt maybe I was running too fast. That’s when I thought about heading over to the sand. Maybe at some level I knew I was going to collapse.”

Moments later, Woodman’s heart went into an abnormal rhythm that prevents it from pumping blood to the brain and other organs. He slumped to the ground, falling hard enough for his glasses to gash his forehead.

Greg Woodman, right, poses with his son, Joe, after they ran in the Las Vegas Half Marathon on April 1. Greg Woodman, a 65-year-old State College resident, has recovered from cardiac arrest he suffered while running the Presque Isle Half Marathon on July 16.

Greg Woodman, right, poses with his son, Joe, after they ran in the Las Vegas Half Marathon on April 1. Greg Woodman, a 65-year-old State College resident, has recovered from cardiac arrest he suffered while running the Presque Isle Half Marathon on July 16.

A person in cardiac arrest will die within a few minutes if the heart is not shocked back into a normal rhythm, and just 10% of people who suffer cardiac arrest outside of a hospital survive, according to the National Institutes of Health.

But Woodman caught a life-saving break. He didn’t know it at the time, but several nurses who were trained in advanced life support were running near Woodman when he collapsed.

“I was a little behind him, and when I looked up I saw a couple of people doing CPR and others waving their arms, yelling for medical personnel,” said Laura Overly, R.N., a critical care nurse at Armstrong County Memorial Hospital. “I took off my headphones and told them I was an ER nurse. I started doing CPR and doing pulse checks on him.”

Tabitha Bowser, R.N., a former ER nurse who works with Overly at the Kittanning hospital, was running about a minute behind her.

“I could tell that something serious was going on up the road,” Bowser said. “As I got closer, I could see Laura was doing chest compressions on someone.”

Performing CPR can be exhausting, especially for people who have just run 3.8 miles, so Bowser and a male nurse relieved Overly and took turns doing chest compressions.

They weren’t alone; about a dozen runners and bystanders gathered around Woodman. Some performed CPR, others called 911, sought out park officials or tried to make Woodman comfortable.

“I’d say six, eight maybe even 10 of us took turns doing chest compressions,” said Mikaela Hess, R.N., a Hamot ER nurse who arrived just moments after Woodman collapsed. “It felt like a lifetime, though it was just five minutes or so before the ambulance arrived.”

Some of the nurses helped paramedics attach the pads of an automated external defibrillator to Woodman’s chest so his heart could be shocked back into rhythm. He was also given a shot of epinephrine and a breathing bag was used to improve his respiration.

A single shock restored Woodman’s normal heart rhythm, Overly said, though he remained unconscious as he was placed into the ambulance and taken to UPMC Hamot.

The rescuers slowly dispersed, with many of them resuming their run around the peninsula without knowing whether Woodman would survive.

“I was a little tired but I also had a dose of adrenaline,” Overly said. “I thought about (Greg) for a lot of the race. He wasn’t able to finish it, so maybe I was running for him a little bit.”

Woodman was confused and argumentative in the ambulance

Woodman regained consciousness during the ambulance trip to Hamot. Like other cardiac arrest survivors, he was a little confused and argumentative.

“Apparently he was arguing with the paramedics that he needed to get back running,” Joe Woodman said. “They needed to give him a sedative.”

Joe Woodman was notified about his father about halfway through the race. He called his mother, then got a ride to the finish line, where he waited for his brother, Nate Woodman.

They then drove to Hamot and met their father in the Hamot ER.

“I might have run a few red lights,” Joe Woodman said.

What caused the cardiac arrest?

Diagnostic tests performed at Hamot revealed two blockages in his circumflex artery, which supplies blood to the outer side and back of the heart. They likely triggered a heart attack that caused Woodman’s cardiac arrest.

It’s unusual for someone in good enough shape to run marathons to suffer cardiac arrest, said Dr. Jean Moubarak, a Hamot cardiologist who treated Woodman.

“It’s a surprise, but we have seen it before,” Moubarak said. “That’s when we look at cholesterol levels, family history, things like that.”

Woodman had two stents placed in the artery to restore blood flow. He felt well enough to be released from Hamot July 19.

He must undergo cardiac rehabilitation and additional testing, but Moubarak said Woodman should be able to resume running marathons if he wants.

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An extraordinary recovery for Woodman

Woodman’s recovery is extraordinary. Not only did he survive, but Woodman didn’t suffer permanent damage to his heart or brain, Moubarak said.

“He was lucky that he had people around him that knew advanced life support and they started it immediately,” Moubarak said. “Doing CPR is enough to maintain blood flow to the brain until a normal heart rhythm can be restored.”

Amazingly, this isn’t the first time Bowser has saved the life of a cardiac arrest victim outside of a hospital.

“I was 16 and I had just taken a CPR class,” Bowser said. “I was working at a grocery store in my hometown and an older gentleman in line went into cardiac arrest. He also survived.”

As he recovers, Woodman has been emailing with some of the people who helped save his life. He also wrote a letter detailing his experience and expressing his gratitude.

It’s titled, “Why Erie has my heart.”

“Had I been running by myself in the woods when this happened, I wouldn’t be here now,” Woodman said. “I want to come back to Erie for the full marathon in September and shake everyone’s hand.”

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Contact David Bruce at Follow him on Twitter @ETNBruce.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: ER nurses save marathon runner whose heart stopped during race

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