John Hoerster and family (left), American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown. (Hoerster photo courtesy of Hoerster family)
John Hoerster has the same name as his father. He followed him into the same profession, coaching high school football.
And after his dad died of a heart attack at 53, John figured it was a matter of time before his heart gave out.
So John vowed to push that date with destiny as far into the future as possible. He didn’t just diet and exercise. He made fitness such a priority that on July 5 – while his extended family was settling in for a cocktail hour around the pool of the home they’d rented in the Outer Banks, North Carolina – he capped a day of golf and parasailing by heading to the ocean for a swim.
“Make it quick,” his wife, Margaret, said as he headed toward the beach. “The crab feast is at 8.”
A few minutes before 8 p.m., John walked back up the sand to the house, water still dripping off his swimsuit. He passed kids sprawled on picnic tables getting drops to relieve swimmer’s ear and adults nibbling on cheese and crackers. About 10 feet from Margaret, John collapsed. At 42, his heart had stopped, just like his dad’s.
Except for one key difference: His dad’s heart stopped while watering flowers alone in his yard. John’s heart stopped in front of about 30 relatives.
The first two generations of John Hoersters. The younger John followed his dad into coaching. (Photo courtesy of Hoerster family) Margaret was looking the other way. Her sister saw him go down and yelled, “John!”
In the brief time it took Margaret to get to him, John’s skin already was turning pale. His eyes were rolling. This strong man always so in control of his body felt lifeless.
“Call 911!” Margaret screamed. “Get the kids out of here!”
Matt Giffhorn, a physical therapist married to one of Margaret’s cousins, reached for a pulse. Feeling none, he started CPR.
Matt pumped John’s chest. Margaret kept his airway clear. Matt’s wife, Christine, was the one who called 911 and remained on the phone with the operator. Margaret kept asking Christine for updates of how close the ambulance was.
The house was so big and so close to the ocean that they never heard the siren. Eight minutes after the call, a rescue crew appeared by the pool. Margaret and Matt moved aside. Paramedics sent a breathing tube down John’s throat and connected him to various machines.
“Open your eyes,” Margaret begged. John didn’t.
John's recovery begins. (Photo courtesy of Hoerster family)
jolted John’s heart, getting it beating again. Barely.
His heart stopped because of cardiac arrest, an outage of the heart’s electricity. He also had a heart attack, the equivalent of a plumbing blockage; oxygen-rich blood wasn’t getting to his heart.
It was the same 1-2 punch that felled his dad.
An ambulance took John and Margaret not to a hospital, but to a fire station. The trucks were all pulled out and pointed toward a field, their headlights on, illuminating a makeshift landing spot for a medical helicopter. He needed more care than the locals could provide.
The chopper took off carrying John, but not Margaret. As helpless as she’d felt watching Matt give CPR, this was worse. This time she had to leave John’s side.
John got to the hospital in 20 minutes. Driven by relatives who’d followed the ambulance to the fire station, Margaret’s trip took an hour.
Doctors took John into the catheterization lab, hoping to open any blockages in his arteries with stents.
The blockages were too severe and too numerous. His breathing was aided by a ventilator and he was put into an induced coma to help his body heal. They were especially worried about his brain.
“They didn’t know how he’d respond to being without oxygen for so long,” s