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A Living, Loving Heart

Julie and Tom Fennell spent that Saturday afternoon planting flowers around their Fargo home. Purple geraniums, violet petunias -- the more vibrant the better.

That evening they went out for dinner with daughter, Stephanie, and her boyfriend, Ryan.

“I felt just fine -- never an inkling anything was wrong,” recalls Julie.

A nurse for more than three decades, she knew the classic signs of heart trouble: chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath. And certainly she knew the importance of tracking her blood pressure, cholesterol and weight. She felt none of the symptoms, had healthy numbers and exercised regularly.

Yet on that evening -- May 26, 2007 -- Julie nearly lost her life to a very serious heart problem.

“The last thing I remember was sitting in the booth looking at the menu,” she says.

Rapid chain of care

Julie collapsed, leaning against Tom’s shoulder. He tried to rouse her. No response.

The family swung into action. Stephanie, a soon-to-be-nurse, and Ryan started CPR while Tom called 9-1-1. In minutes, first responders from the nearby fire and police stations arrived. They used an automatic external defibrillator (AED) to deliver a shock to jumpstart her heart. After six shocks, still no sustained heartbeat.

An ambulance crew arrived, bringing medications and inserting a tube into her windpipe. They rushed her to nearby Sanford ER where CPR continued. Working against time, the Sanford team was able to regain a heart rhythm.

Julie had suffered sudden cardiac arrest. Three key factors saved her life:

  • rapid response from family and first responders
  • AED availability
  • close proximity/rapid transportation to a heart hospital
  • Advanced knowledge and technology

    Julie’s heart resumed beating, but that was just the first step. Would her brain survive the lack of oxygen?

    Hospitalization followed in the Sanford’s Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. While sedated, Julie underwent therapeutic hypothermia (cooling of the body). This important advance has proven to decrease the chance of brain damage after sudden cardiac arrest.

    Julie regained consciousness late Sunday morning. To her family‘s relief, she recognized them and was able to communicate.

    So why did Julie experience sudden cardiac arrest? And what could prevent a recurrence? Several tests in the next few days tried to pinpoint the cause. Coronary artery disease can be an underlying cause, but Julie’s arteries were healthy.

    Tests revealed an electrical defect in her heart, prompting the surgical implantation of an internal cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). If her heart stops again, the defibrillator automatically delivers a lifesaving shock.

    Returning home, giving back

    Julie left the hospital a week later, but it was months before she felt normal.

    “An experience like that overwhelms you physically and mentally,” she says. “It’s unbelievable what you can go through and still recover.”

    Today Julie’s back to 100 percent. And she’s 100 percent committed to helping others.

    “I’m alive today because so many people knew what to do. Thank you just isn’t enough,” she says. Julie serves as honorary chair for the 2012 American Heart Association (AHA) Heart Walk in Fargo.

    She also speaks to various groups throughout the year. Her messages include:

  • The keys to heart health.
  • The important role of family. “I couldn’t have gotten through this without them,” says the mother of three grown children.
  • The excellent results when organizations such as the AHA, Sanford and community services work together for best possible emergency care. "The availability of AEDs in public places is a good example,” says Julie.
  • Bloom where you’re planted

    Snow still covered the ground when Julie began planning her flowers for 2012. This year she might add a salsa garden, too.

    “I love growing things -- flowers, vegetables, you name it,” she says. “There’s something special about seeing them come to life.”

    Julie’s bright eyes and ready smile reveal something special about her own growth, too.

    “That Saturday five years ago when Tom and I were out planting, we were talking about all our summer plans. We had no idea…” she says. “I learned to never take anything for granted.”

    Julie hadn’t known the joys of the next five years either. Her daughter became a cardiac nurse in Minneapolis, Ryan became her son-in-law and she now has a grandson.

    “So many wonderful moments,” she says. “I’m making the most of my second chance at life.”

    Posted Date: May 2012