John McHenry of Annandale is feeling pretty good these days. Really good, actually. Because while waiting for jury duty in the Fairfax County courthouse last week, McHenry essentially dropped dead of a heart attack. And by some stretch of incredible luck, four nurses also were waiting for jury duty, and with the help of a nearby defibrillator, they saved McHenry’s life.
“I marvel at the fact that strangers helped me,” McHenry said. “It was the perfect setting to have an event like this. One of the nurses had just taken the CPR course and had a mask in her purse. There was a defibrillator nearby. They all worked together. All of this worked to my advantage, and I was just doing my civic duty.”
They call his type of heart attack “the Widowmaker,’” the doctors told McHenry, 66, after he spent a day in intensive care, followed by a quintuple bypass heart surgery. But modern medicine being what it is, he had the heart attack last Monday, the operation on Tuesday, and was home by Friday.
Nurse practitioner Beth Orrell of McLean, who works with heart surgery patients at Washington Hospital Center, was there when McHenry collapsed and administered the electrical shock. Nurse Linda Elabassi of Fairfax, who works at Reston Hospital Center, was there and led the CPR. Two other nurses helped while another juror rushed to get the automated external defibrillator from the wall near the fifth floor elevator of the courthouse, and handed it to Orrell, who used it until paramedics arrived.
Both Orrell and Elabassi said that in hospitals they don’t actually get to use their emergency skills as much. And six months ago, Elabassi assisted with another public collapse of a man at her gym, from a seizure. ”I’ve had more action in the last six months than in the last 30 years of nursing,” Elabassi said.
Fairfax sheriff’s deputies said the quick work of the nurse-jurors was crucial. “He is extremely lucky that his medical emergency occurred where it did,” Lt. Steve Elbert said, “because he was able to receive immediate medical attention.”
McHenry, 66, is a retired financial manager, happily married, and a Vietnam vet who saw combat action. He admits he was not exactly great about following his doctor’s advice in regard to his Type II diabetes and heart condition. And he advises everyone who has such problems to pay more attention to their doctors.
McHenry remembers driving to the courthouse the morning of Nov. 26, after spending Thanksgiving with family south of Richmond, and feeling some slight chest discomfort. He said he popped a 325 mg tablet of aspirin, which may have been a key move in helping his body respond to the heart attack.
About 8:30 a.m., he walked into the jury assembly room, folded his vest and placed it on a rack, and that’s it for what he recalls. “I didn’t go into the light, I went into the black,” he said. “But that may have been from bumping my head.”
McHenry fell face first onto a table, then dropped to the floor.
“I heard the thump to the floor,” Orrell said. “Then I heard someone say, ‘Call 911.’ I knew that something was wrong.”
Orrell said she had just finished recertification in October for Advanced Cardio Pulmonary Life Support. “He was still breathing,” she said. “We decided to roll him on his side. He stopped breathing. No pulse.” They rolled him on his back.
She and Elabassi started CPR, and Orrell said she called out, “We really need to find that AED.” Fortunately, Fairfax had installed them in the courthouse when the new expansion was finished in 2008, Chief Circuit Court Judge Dennis J. Smith said, and someone else had spotted it coming in to jury duty minutes earlier.
“They brought it to me,” Orrell said, “and really that’s what saved his life. You turn it on, it starts telling you what to do, with pictures of where you place the patches.”
The machine checked McHenry’s vital signs, and then declared, “Shock advised. Stand back.” People stepped back, and “we went ahead and delivered the shock,” Orrell said.
Elabassi and others resumed CPR. Orrell said she had a barrier mask to put over his face for resuscitation, and also started chest compressions. McHenry said he thought someone intubated him, though he couldn’t be sure. Two of the nurse-juror-heroes declined to be interviwed.
The machine checked McHenry’s vital signs again, and declared, “No shock advised.” He had a pulse. Then the paramedics arrived.
McHenry turned to Elabassi and said, “Am I in the hospital?” Elabassi responded, “No sir, you’re here in the courthouse, you’ve had an episode.”
“Oh,” McHenry said. Minutes later, he was able to tell the EMTs his wife Jamie’s phone number.
“I feel excellent,” McHenry said Tuesday. His chest pains are gone. He has not spoken to his nurse-juror-heroes yet, but he will. “They made the difference for me,” he said.
And after McHenry had been taken away in the ambulance to Inova Fairfax Hospital, it was still only 9:30 a.m., and justice awaited in the Fairfax courthouse. Judge Smith then walked in and released the nurse-juror-heroes, saying they had more than fulfilled their civic duties.