Heart and Vascular

Endurance athlete really learned endurance after cardiac arrest

Jim Spinner - Cardiac Arrest Patient at Nuvance Health

By Celia M. Regan, Senior Director, Donor Engagement, Foundations of Nuvance Health

1/20/2022

An endurance athlete, Jim Spinner will tell you that until just a few years ago, he felt invincible. “I had that jock mentality,” he says now. After he experienced cardiac arrest, however, he learned what it really means to endure.

At 67, Jim Spinner still has the body of a highly trained athlete.

A lifelong cyclist and triathlete, Jim spent decades in rigorous training, dedicating his spare time to the hard work of competing in bicycle races in the French and Swiss Alps. Endurance was the name of the game. Jim, who is President of Integ Systems, a Danbury-based firm providing integrated power protection for a range of national companies, found room in his life for everything: family, work and competition. And it all seemed to work.

Until it didn’t.

Jim was pushing his body to the limit, building strength and raising his heart rate significantly – a must for cyclists pumping out the kind of power required for climbing mountains on a bike. Silently, however, his heart wasn’t playing along. About ten years ago, doctors at Danbury Hospital identified a problem with atrial fibrillation (or a-fib), an irregular heart rhythm that can increase risk for heart failure and other cardiovascular events.

And that wasn’t all. “In spite of being in phenomenal shape, Jim doesn’t have a perfect heart,” noted Murali Chiravuri, MD, PhD, a cardiovascular disease specialist who is part of Jim’s treatment team. “His left ventricle is not in perfect condition, and he also has a genetic predisposition to coronary artery disease.”

Dr. Chiravuri and Sumit Tickoo, MD, an interventional cardiologist, began to work with Jim on managing the a-fib issues.  “They told me it had certain triggers. They said, ‘You have to limit your heart rate.’ But I wasn’t paying attention to that. I just saw it as a bump in the road, and I kept on competing.”

The stress continued to build. Jim experienced more heart events, including one that ended with his being hospitalized in Grenoble, France. He kept bouncing back, grateful for his physical victories yet not fully grasping the ongoing challenges his continued competition placed on his family – and his heart.

And then came what Jim now calls, “My drastic event.”

14 Minutes

“It happened on July 30, 2019,” Jim said. “It was a Tuesday.” That’s pretty much all he can recall of the cardiac arrest that changed his life forever. “I have to piece everything together from what others remember.”

Jim had been preparing for another race and felt that he was in peak condition. He reported for jury service early that day; after being excused that morning, he returned to his Danbury office, where he collapsed.

“My assistant apparently found me on the floor and sounded the alarm. Within seconds, another employee started doing chest compressions,” Jim said. “For fourteen minutes I had no heartbeat. Twenty people – twelve civilians and eight first responders – ended up working on me that day, including complete strangers who helped with CPR.”

Dr. Tickoo minced no words about this critical period. “From the moment of Jim’s collapse, there was no blood going to the brain. The CPR he received immediately saved both his life and his brain function.”

The paramedics arrived after seven minutes, but their efforts to revive Jim seemed hopeless. “He’s gone,” someone said. But a longtime friend and co-worker wasn’t ready to give up. “He’s a tough guy,” said the friend. “Hit him again! He’ll come back.”

He did.

Jim had sustained 13 shocks from the paramedics, six broken ribs from the many minutes of CPR, and 14 minutes without blood flowing to his brain. And somehow, he survived.

Cooling Down/Warming Up

Jim’s wife, Pam, remembers what Jim can’t. She was out at lunch when a call came from her son; she tossed her meal in the trash and headed home, where some of Jim’s co-workers met her and drove her to the Danbury Hospital Emergency Department. When she arrived, she was asked a stunning question.

“They asked me if they could freeze him, to ensure his brain remained intact,” she recalled. “I said yes.”

It was another lifesaving decision. “We initiated therapeutic hypothermia – a cooling of his body,” Dr. Tickoo said. “The biggest issue is the neurological recovery, and that recovery is significantly improved after cooling. We then did a cardiac catherization to make sure he did not have any blockages in the arteries that caused his arrest. Once that was done, he was moved to the Medical Intensive Care Unit for the cooling protocol. His brain function came back quickly because of that protocol. At the time, this was cutting-edge, but now it’s become the standard of care.”

Jim was sedated for ten days – “days I lost,” he said. Pam was by his side in the ICU. “I never thought something like this could happen to Jim. He was always so strong,” she recalled. “It was a miserable time. I had to keep a tough face, keep hoping that he’d live. I did a lot of praying.”

“During such a traumatic time,” Dr. Chiravuri said, “I got to see Pam’s grace and composure – and also her strength.”

Jim and Pam were never alone. A succession of co-workers, friends and family came to visit Jim’s hospital room. “We kept you stimulated,” she tells her husband. “We were all talking to you, around you.”

“I have pictures of friends on my bed with me,” Jim says, “including people I had played in Little League with. I’m glad I have the pictures, because I just don’t remember this.” Later, he asked Pam to make a list of all the people who had come to see him. “I could remember only a handful – but all of them, every one of them, whether I could remember seeing them or not, were in my dreams while I was there,” Jim remembered.

Once Jim was no longer sedated, he dealt with flickering short-term memories. “I could remember a thought for just ten seconds, and then I’d say the same thing ten seconds later.”

Twice while in the hospital – not realizing that his doctors had spent significant time with him after his drastic event – Jim placed a call to Dr. Chiravuri’s home. He wanted to be sure he let his doctor know that he’d gone into cardiac arrest. During each call, the doctor reminded him gently that he’d been at Jim’s bedside talking with him only a short while before. “I didn’t remember that I’d just seen him,” Jim said. “Looking at it now, I think this speaks to our friendship and appreciation for what he and Dr. Tickoo both do: my subconscious wouldn’t let me not call them.”

Dr. Chiravuri remembers these calls, too. “I was actually honored that Jim called me like that. When you’ve lost your short-term memory, you have no inhibitions and we can see the true individual. There were troops of people in and out. Yet to every person, all Jim would say was, ‘Are you OK? Are you comfortable?’ Everything was about the other person. Without any ability to put on a façade, this was just him.”

Next Steps

Before Jim could think of leaving Danbury Hospital, he and Pam consulted with his doctors about what would come next. “Having known Jim for several years, I knew that he wasn’t going to change,” Dr. Chiravuri said. “He is always going to be an athlete.” For that reason, he and Dr. Tickoo felt it was essential that they implant a defibrillator in Jim’s heart. It turned out to be yet another life saving decision.

“The communication between the doctors was phenomenal,” Pam noted. “It’s not easy to say no to Jim, to tell him, ‘You can’t run, you can’t bike.’ He’s conditioned in a way that sports are just so important to him.”

Jim agreed to the procedure. “They told me, ‘We’re just not willing to take a one-in-a-million shot again.’ I’m just grateful that they know me so well – that I’m a risk-taker, competitive – and that they had both the knowledge and the caring to make that recommendation.”

Once the defibrillator was successfully placed, Jim went home to begin a new life. Adjustment was hard, after the trauma he and his family had sustained. Always a positive person, Jim found himself in a dark place in the months following his hospitalization. “Pam was my crutch,” he says. “She had to put up with my frustration because of all the things I couldn’t do.” While he has managed to avoid depression, he fights against post-traumatic stress.

Once, after anxiously chasing the family dog, Ozzie, for a half-mile, Jim knew that managing his own state of mind and avoiding stress would be critical to his long-term recovery.

For this lifelong athlete, overhauling his exercise regimen proved especially challenging. Riding hard on his Peloton bike one afternoon in 2020, Jim suddenly felt his heart stop. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m gone’ – and then two seconds later the defibrillator went off.” After Ozzie alerted Pam, Jim was rushed to the hospital. “You have to slow down,” Dr. Chiravuri told him. “Cut back on the intensity of your workouts.”

“But you weren’t listening!” Pam said jokingly to her husband, adding, “You’re very lucky you got to ride, explore and compete for all these years.”

“Right!” Jim agreed. “And I’m not looking back.” Now Jim lifts weights, does yoga, goes for walks and plays a bit of golf. “No more endurance training.” He gave the Peloton to one of his children. He’s also planning on resuming longer distance hiking, and will connect with the cardiac rehab team at Danbury Hospital for a baseline assessment.

Grateful

At Jim’s company, all the employees have been trained and recertified in CPR. “As a company, we all agreed they should get the training,” said Jim. “They’re often at construction sites, working on backup power. We felt it was important to have this ability, whenever they may need to help someone.”

As Jim and Pam look to the future, they are grateful for many things: for the care he received, for the love and support of friends and family – and their life saving efforts – and for the time they have been given together.

Their spirit of gratitude is central to how they want to live their life. “This whole situation has helped both of us understand how blessed we were,” Jim said. “What I went through only reinforced this fact.” Just a few months after the drastic event, Jim was able to speak to some of the firefighters, paramedics and colleagues who helped resuscitate him. “It is with great pride that I share my respect with those responsible for giving me the gift of life,” he told them.

Thanking them publicly was key to his recovery – and he doesn’t want to stop there. “There had to have been at least twenty or thirty people who worked on me in the hospital. It took a whole community to save my life, but I’ve never gotten to thank the ER doctors, the ICU nurses, the therapists.”

“There is so much compassion at Danbury Hospital, which is beautiful,” Pam adds.

Jim is hopeful that sharing his story can help others recognize themselves in his experience. “My life is an open book,” he said. The couple has also honored their caregivers through their philanthropy to Danbury Hospital.

Dr. Chiravuri and Dr. Tickoo see Jim regularly, usually with Pam at his side.

“It is a joy to work with them,” said Dr. Chiravuri. “I tell my fellows and residents all the time that it’s a privilege to do what we do. The Spinners truly exemplify this.”

“All those years I trained and competed, I didn’t realize how much stress I put on my wife,” Jim reflected. “Whatever years I have left, I want to spend them enjoying my life with Pam, and not going downhill on skinny tires at sixty miles an hour.”

Keys to Survival

In considering Jim’s treatment, Dr. Sumit Tickoo cites elements that were essential to his survival. “The cooling process was important; it saved his brain function.

“Jim was also hospitalized a little bit longer than some so that we could better monitor his recovery. His defibrillator helps us keep an eye on his symptoms and protects him against another cardiac arrest: it watches for arrhythmia and shocks a patient out of that rhythm.

“The era for an acute heart attack has changed. Cardiac catheterization saves lives for sure. Because we can now handle cases by going in through a patient’s wrist – rather than the leg – we’ve found that risk is reduced, recovery time is shorter and outcomes are better. We’ve developed catheters and equipment to handle wrist procedures and the data suggest this is the best way.

“But if I could point to just one change I wish I could implement that would significantly improve survival, it’s CPR. Jim’s colleagues began compressions immediately, and they helped to save his life.”