The crowd cheered as Bill Amirault neared the finish line of the Key West Half Marathon in Florida. Suddenly, he felt faint and had tunnel vision, so he slowed to walk. Then he collapsed.
Fellow runners and bystanders rushed to him. Luckily, the first three people to reach him were all nurses. They directed someone to call 911 and started CPR. They saved Bill’s life.
A longtime runner, Bill had aligned the 13.1-mile race in January with a business meeting. It was his sixth half marathon.
“I trained, but not as much as I should have,” he said. “I didn’t think I would finish.”
The Colorado Springs, Colorado, resident had never fainted before.
“I remember lying down on the ground, then everything went black,” Bill, 45, recalled.
Bill Amirault at the Key West Half Marathon in January. His heart stopped just short of the finish line. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Gay/Endurance Imaging)
Amy Smythe of Elkton, Maryland, had finished the half marathon and was waiting for friends when she saw Bill head to the curb. She thought, “Don’t stop, you’re almost there.” Then, she saw Bill on the ground.
As a cardiology nurse, Amy knew to rub his chest, but there was no response.
Runner Lisa Vos, a delivery nurse at a hospital in Illinois, couldn’t find Bill’s pulse, so she started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while Robbie Ladd — at the race to cheer on his wife — and Amy took turns performing chest compressions.
“Bill was purple and had labored breathing,” said Robbie, a nurse anesthetist from South Florida who kept Bill’s airway open until emergency help arrived. Emergency medical technicians used an automated external defibrillator, or AED, to shock Bill’s heart back into a normal rhythm.
American Heart Association guidelines for CPR recommend that anyone who sees an adult collapse should call 911 and provide chest compressions at a rate of 100 to 120 compressions per minute. Guidelines also recommend rescue breaths during CPR by people willing and able to deliver them.
“Time stood still,” recalls Lisa, a former AHA CPR instructor. “I was kneeling at his head, praying.”
Bill’s heart suddenly stopped due to ventricular fibrillation, an electrical malfunction that impeded blood flow and caused a dangerously irregular heart rhythm. That caused sudden cardiac arrest.
More than 350,000 Americans each year suffer an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. Unlike about 90 percent of those people, Bill survived mainly because of two factors: quick CPR and a fast emergency response.
Bill was transported to Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami for tests, but doctors couldn’t pinpoint the cause. Doctors implanted a defibrillator in Bill’s chest to shock his heart should a life-threatening rhythm ever occur again.
In the hospital, Bill learned about the “angels” who performed CPR. From his hospital bed, he recorded a video thanking them. He shared it on Facebook. Within a few hours, it went viral.
The video received more than 1.7 million views. That’s how Amy, Lisa and Robbie discovered Bill survived.
Producers of Harry Connick Jr.’s talk show heard about Bill’s story and invited him, Amy, Lisa and Robbie to appear for a reunion. The episode aired April 5.
They all want to spread a key message: Learn CPR and don’t be afraid to help others in need.
“I want to reassure people it doesn’t hurt to try to help,” Lisa said. “CPR can save lives.”
In fact, bystander CPR, especially if done within the first few minutes of a cardiac arrest, can double or triple the chance of survival.
AHA-authorized training centers offer online and instructor-led CPR courses. AHA also offers 20-minute, at-home CPR Anytime training kits.
The experience has changed Bill’s outlook on life.
The entire family — Bill, his wife, Becky, and two daughters — received CPR and AED training. Bill began volunteering for AHA, sharing his story and supporting local events, such as Heart Walks. And he’s leaving his software engineering job to focus on Move4Charity Inc., a nonprofit he started for CPR/AED awareness and fundraising.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is bonus time that I’m still here,” he said. “I decided I wanted to pay it forward.”