Realtor Gene Cragoe was driving to his office to check something when he started to “get real dizzy, real quick.”

He took his foot off the accelerator and tried guiding his van off the highway in the small town of Luverne, Minnesota. Unfortunately, there was no shoulder on the main drag.

The next thing Gene knew, his van was atop an 18-inch landscaping wall in someone’s yard and someone else was knocking on his window. It was off-duty EMT Melissa Sterrett, who lived across the street and luckily had just arrived home. She found Gene slumped over the steering wheel and console and managed to get him to unlock the door.

In a small town where everyone knows everyone, 78-year-old Gene said, “I know you.”

“She helped me stand up. I don’t remember anything after that,” he said. “I guess that’s when my heart stopped.”

***

Gene Cragoe-mugGene collapsed. He had no pulse, wasn’t breathing and had turned a horrible shade of gray.

Melissa began CPR while another woman who’d rushed over to help called 9-1-1. A trained emergency worker, Melissa kept the compressions going until police arrived and brought out an automated external defibrillator. They administered one shock with the AED. Gene then regained consciousness and began talking.

Ambulance crews rushed Gene to the community hospital. From there he was flown to a hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“The doctor said, ‘We’ve got an air ambulance on its way right now because it could happen again,’” Gene recalled.

Twenty years before, Gene survived a heart attack. Five years before, he underwent a quadruple bypass operation. Now he’d survived sudden cardiac arrest.

***

“My dad was saved by CPR,” said Pam Miller, who has spent years preaching the importance of the life-saving skill. You see, Pam is the American Heart Association’s Regional Grassroots Advocacy Director for North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.

Doing compressions keeps oxygen-filled blood flowing through the body to vital organs and gives a person like Gene, who has suffered sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), a chance to be revived. Without oxygen, a person can suffer brain damage or organ damage after only a few minutes.

Pam was not aware of the exact steps the EMT took to save her father until her sister contacted Melissa the next morning.

“That’s when I kind of went, ‘Oh my gosh! Here I am talking to people every day that CPR saves lives, CPR is a life-saving skill you should know, and without it my dad wouldn’t be here,” she said.

Added Gene, “The Good Lord must have set that up or something. Makes you wonder, don’t it?”

***

Heart disease has shrouded Gene’s life.

His dad died after suffering his fourth heart attack. One of his brothers had a heart attack. The heart attack that Gene suffered 20 years ago damaged his heart so badly that it only functions at two-thirds capacity. The latest incident occurred May 14.

“Why this happened, nobody seems to have an answer,” said Gene, who takes medicine to control his blood pressure and cholesterol.

After the cardiac arrest, doctors put an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) in Gene’s chest. The battery-powered device placed under the skin keeps track of Gene’s heart rate. If an abnormal heart rhythm is detected, the device will deliver an electric shock to restore a normal heartbeat.

Although Gene also left with a cracked rib from the CPR, that just shows Melissa was doing all she could to save his life.

“To do effective compressions, you’ve got to really put yourself into it,” said Pam, adding that most people over 12 have the strength to do just that.

The American Heart Association advises that if you see a teen or adult suddenly collapse, call 9-1-1 and push hard and fast in the center of the chest to the beat of the classic disco song “Staying Alive.”

“What’s the alternative? Stand there and watch someone die because you don’t know what to do. At least with CPR, there’s a chance you’d be able to save that person,” Pam said. “Chances are if you are going to be doing this, it’s going to be someone you know.”

The doctor told Gene he was a lucky man.

“He said, ‘Out of 100 of these cardiac arrests, five survive.’ I’m glad to be one of the five.”

Gene Cragoe and family

Gene and Colleen Cragoe, with grandson Zachary Miller

***

Photos courtesy of Gene Cragoe & family

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Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell?

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

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