Van Gilbert was about 15 minutes into his weekly tennis lesson when the pro asked him to practice his serve. He made it through a couple serves before collapsing at the baseline.
His coach ran to the pro shop to call 911. A man on a nearby court ran over to Gilbert and started CPR, continuing for at least 12 minutes.
When the ambulance arrived, paramedics used an automated external defibrillator, or AED, to try to revive him. It took two shocks to get Gilbert’s heart beating again.
Doctors at the hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, found that the artery going to the side of Gilbert’s heart was 99 percent blocked. A stent was inserted to restore blood flow.
It was 4 a.m. the next morning when Gilbert awoke to find himself in a hospital gown. All he remembered was collapsing.
“I didn’t believe I had a heart attack,” said Gilbert, an architect who was in his 60s at the time of his heart attack in 2009. “I said there’s no way. I exercise, I eat well, I take care of myself, all that.”
Tests showed that another heart artery was 80 percent blocked, requiring a second stent to be placed a couple days later.
“I said, ‘Let’s get it taken care of right away. I don’t want to ever have to come back here,’” he said. “It’s the only time I’ve ever been in a hospital.”
Gilbert is a Vietnam War veteran and has no family history of heart disease. He was exposed to herbicides such as Agent Orange during his tour of duty. The year after Gilbert’s heart attack, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognized an association between heart disease and Agent Orange and other herbicides. Gilbert now receives disability compensation.
Gilbert is grateful for the perfect chain of care he received, from CPR to defibrillation to immediate treatment at the University of New Mexico Hospital to open his blocked artery.
Since his heart attack, Gilbert has worked to get AEDs installed in buildings being worked on by his architectural firm and has taken part in the American Heart Association’s local Heart Ball. He encourages people to learn CPR and has advocated for so-called Good Samaritan laws meant to protect people from legal liability should they attempt CPR on a cardiac arrest victim.
“I think the real critical thing is you don’t have much time, so you need somebody who knows CPR and can do it until the EMTs get there,” Gilbert said. “Everything occurred the way it was supposed to occur in my case, so I feel extremely fortunate.”