How Greg beat the odds

Greg Johnston with his lifesavers – wife Maree, son Matt (left) and nurse Carolyn Wallis (right), who want to highlight the importance of knowing how to do CPR. 

A free app called GoodSAM is now available in New Zealand.  It alerts people that a patient suspected to be in cardiac arrest is nearby, enabling them to possibly save a life by providing CPR and using an AED (if available) before emergency services arrive. For more information visit go to stjohn.org.nz and look under first aid.

Greg Johnston was standing in his kitchen helping wife Maree bottle jam last month when he collapsed without warning, swiping jars and cutlery off the bench as he crashed to the floor.

Maree, a part-time nurse who works in Waikato Hospital’s oncology outpatients’ department, has one sentence to describe the serendipitous combination of events that followed:

“Greg’s stars were all in alignment.”

“Miracle” is the word Carolyn Wallis, who was at the scene that day, uses.

In an incredible stroke of luck, Carolyn, who has 25 years’ experience as a cardiac nurse, was just metres from Greg and Maree’s road when she discovered he was in trouble.

“He’s a miracle.  He’s an absolute, absolute miracle,” she said.

“It was just the whole chain of events.  He collapsed in front of his wife who knew what to do, his daughter-in-law Vikki thought to ring me just as I happened to be driving past the end of their road, he had super experienced paramedics people and the firemen … I mean we underestimate our volunteers because holy, they’re amazing.”

Greg, a former world champion, Olympic bronze and Commonwealth Games’ silver medallist rower, has had two cardiac arrests over the past eight months, both at his home in rural Cambridge.

“Statistically hardly anyone survives a community arrest,” said the 62-year-old, now an accountant.

“I’ve had two of them so I suppose I might apply the probability in the 3-10 per cent range, so yeah, I’m pretty lucky.”

The first arrest occurred last July, completely out of the blue.  Greg was walking up his driveway after doing jobs in the garden when he suddenly keeled over.

“I managed to yell out to Maree and then the world went black,” he said.

Maree, who is Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) trained, managed to revive her husband by the time an ambulance arrived 8-9 minutes later.

“I would really like to highlight the importance of knowing how to do CPR, starting it promptly, calling emergency services and letting them know how urgent the situation is,” she said.

“Any CPR is good CPR.  It’s a scary thing to do, but not doing it is worse than doing it wrongly, I think.”

During the 5-6 minutes Greg was unconscious, the CPR Maree administered kept oxygenated blood flowing around his body, preventing any damage to his brain.

Waikato Hospital cardiologists determined the arrest had been caused by blockages in Greg’s coronary arteries and placed three stents – small metal mesh tubes – in the arteries to solve the problem.

But on February 7 while making jam with Maree, Greg suffered a second cardiac arrest.

“The second one they think was caused by scar tissue from the first heart attack,” he said.  “Bits of my heart had died and the scar tissue upset the electrical signals.”

He doesn’t remember anything from that day but it’s one Maree will probably never forget.

After Greg collapsed, she once again called 111, put the operator on speakerphone, began CPR and grabbed a second phone to get help from her son Matt.

On the way to his parents’ house Matt rang his wife Vikki, who in turn called her friend Carolyn Wallis, a cardiac nurse.

Completely by coincidence, Carolyn was on her way to Waikato Hospital to start her evening shift and was just a few metres from Greg and Maree’s road when she picked up her phone.

She hit her brakes, turned down Greg and Maree’s lane and drove “very fast” to their house.

“All I was thinking was ‘oh my gosh, I know this man, he’s close to people I care about’,” she said.  “It was the first time I’d ever done CPR on someone I know, ever, in all my years of nursing, and it was the first time I’d done it outside a hospital.”

Carolyn took charge immediately, taking over Greg’s chest compressions.

“She got here before Matty and I think without her I wouldn’t have been able to carry on the CPR much longer,” Maree said.  “She helped save Greg’s life, big time.”

Matt arrived soon afterwards and Carolyn showed him how to open Greg’s airways to improve oxygen flow.

“Having Carolyn there calling the shots was just unreal,” Matt said.  “She was very calm and she gave great instruction.”

Together the trio continued CPR, keeping blood flowing to Greg’s brain until first responders arrived.

“The volunteer fire guys took over CPR and had an airbag for dad’s breathing and the ambos were setting up drugs and the defib,” Matt said.  “Everyone had their job and just worked really well.”

Greg, who had been unresponsive for about 30 minutes, was shocked six times before he regained consciousness.

“I was standing on the veranda with Matty – I couldn’t watch at that stage – and Carolyn came out and said he’s got a pulse and that’s a good thing,” Maree said.  “I just burst into tears.”

Almost two weeks later, while recovering in Waikato Hospital’s cardiac ward, Greg had a visit from Carolyn.

“I just said thanks very much and shook her hand,” said Greg, who is back home and, on his way, to making a full recovery.

He now has an electronic device implanted in his chest to kick-start his heart if it ever stops again.

Greg and his family are “incredibly grateful” to everyone who saved his life.

“I certainly appreciate the fact that I’m still here and realise that’s down to Maree, Carolyn and Matt and the other people that came and helped,” he said.

“They all did an amazing job.  They fought hard for me and certainly didn’t give up.”

Greg hasn’t yet tasted the plum jam he and Maree made on February 7, but he’s looking forward to it.

“It will certainly be special jam and we’ll have a good story to tell about it,” he said.

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