BY STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Simons' wife, Mary, watched helplessly as her husband lost consciousness. Even as she cried into the phone to a 911 dispatcher, Michael's eyes rolled back in his head, he started gurgling -- and then stopped breathing altogether.
"It was frightening," she said. "I wanted so badly to help him."
It was the morning of Feb. 11. The Southern California couple were in Ridgecrest in eastern Kern County where Mr. Simons, 65, was managing a construction project. Mary had driven out to the desert to join him in his hotel room.
But now, Mary's husband of 43 years appeared to be dying before her eyes and she wanted nothing more than to shake him, to pound her fist on his chest -- to do anything she could to bring him back to her.
But she had received express instructions not to touch him.
Suddenly a piercing alarm began sounding. As Mary watched, Michael's body jerked violently forward in his chair as if he were a marionette pulled by an invisible string.
Even as paramedics were arriving, Michael opened his eyes. Gulping lungfuls of sweet air, he had the presence of mind to pull the battery from the specialized vest he was wearing, silencing the alarm.
There was not much for paramedics to do. Michael had been wearing the Zoll LifeVest, the world's first wearable defibrillator -- and it had already shocked him back to the life of the living.
"He was dead," said Dr. Jared Salvo, the cardiac electrophysiologist from Bakersfield Heart Hospital who prescribed the vest for Michael in January.
"Michael had suffered electrical death of the heart," Salvo said of the February event. "Without the vest I can guarantee he would not be here."
Unlike a surgically implanted "defib" device, the LifeVest is worn outside the body as it continuously monitors the patient's heart.
If a life-threatening rhythm is detected, the device alerts the patient prior to delivering a treatment shock, which allows a conscious patient to delay the shock.
If the patient is unconscious, the device delivers an electrical shock to restore normal rhythm.
"Every second that passes is a second the brain is doing without oxygen," Salvo said.
Without defibrillation, Michael had a less than 10 percent chance of survival, he said.
Patients usually must wait 40 days following a heart attack or other serious cardiac event before they can be surgically implanted with an internal defibrillator. Michael was in such a waiting period when his life was saved Feb. 11.
He first came to Heart Hospital in January following a less serious cardiac event, which also occurred in Ridgecrest.
As someone who has suffered heart problems since he had bypass surgery at age 40, Michael knows what excellent medical care feels like.
"If I lived in New York, I would fly to Bakersfield Heart Hospital to be treated," he said. "It's a fabulous place and it's the people who make it that way."
As of October, the temporary device has been prescribed to more than 35,000 patients, according to Zoll's website. Very few patients have required the lifesaving shock to the heart.
"The technology is phenomenal," Dr. Salvo said.
Since the incident, Michael has received an implanted defibrillator combined with a pacemaker. He and Mary were back at Bakersfield Heart Hospital on Monday for a checkup with Dr. Salvo.
"I have to do this," Mary said as she wrapped her arms around Salvo and gave him a big hug.
She knows there are no guarantees -- for anyone. Life can be fragile. Death can be arbitrary.
But Michael and Mary both said they're thankful for the increasingly sophisticated technology -- and the high standards of the people who helped them harness it.
Without both, Mary said, she would have been planning a funeral in February instead of enjoying life with her husband.