By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, email@example.com
Jeff Utzinger owes his life to a stranger who took a chance.
Utzinger was on a run in his Carmel neighborhood four years ago when he collapsed without warning. He has no memory of what happened next, but thanks to that stranger and quick intervention by first responders, his life was not only saved, but forever changed.
“I was saved by CPR and an AED (automated external defibrillator). I was saved by a gentleman in my neighborhood who I didn’t know at the time, but he’s a pretty good friend now,” Utzinger said with a smile.
He connected with his neighbor/rescuer later – Bill Schlies – and the two would go on to work together through the Be Like Bill nonprofit to raise awareness of lifesaving intervention in the event of a cardiac emergency.
“He stopped and did what I think a lot of people might have hesitated to do,” Utzinger said of his neighbor. “He called 911 and they walked him through about four minutes of CPR until a cop showed up with an AED.”
He might have died
Utzinger, then 46 and healthy, had suffered sudden cardiac arrest, the abrupt loss of heart function, breathing and consciousness. The condition usually results from a problem with the heart's electrical system, which disrupts the heart's pumping action and stops blood flow to the body.
Outside of a hospital, survival rates after sudden cardiac arrest are often dismal, less than 10%. But with prompt action, namely chest compressions and the use of an AED, that rate soars to more than 70%.
Utzinger had the benefit of both. Now fully recovered and running again, he has become a champion for AED access and training.
That’s what brought him to Cathedral High School last week when it was officially recognized as the first Indianapolis school to be designated a Heart Safe School by Project ADAM and Riley Hospital for Children.
Dr. Adam Kean, a cardiologist at Riley, was on hand for the certification at Cathedral as well. He has a vested interest in the heart health of young Hoosiers and is championing the Heart Safe School program to ensure that more people are trained in the use of AEDs.
Project ADAM (no relation to Dr. Kean) is named for a Wisconsin high school basketball player who died after collapsing on the court in 1997. Designed to improve cardiac arrest preparedness in schools and other places where young people gather, it encourages partnerships between healthcare affiliates and schools to establish emergency plans and cardiac response teams.
Prepared for emergency
Many schools have AEDS, but not enough people know how to use them, Dr. Kean said.
“It’s all well and good to have the equipment, but you have to practice with it. That’s where the Heart Safe designation is key. We want everyone around to feel empowered to use one of these things in an emergency,” Dr. Kean said in an earlier interview.
“There is phenomenal data to support the fact that … if there is a tragedy, we can come to the rescue, and when I say ‘we,’ I mean we as a community, not just as a hospital.”
As the largest children’s hospital in the state, Riley’s mission is to save lives, but that extends beyond the hospital’s walls into the wider community. And one way to do that is to provide education and training in the proper use of AEDs.
Today, Utzinger is the picture of health, he jokes. There was no underlying condition that predisposed him to sudden cardiac arrest.
“Something just misfired. After I got my head around what had happened and realized how lucky I was, I became a big advocate for AEDs.”
But it was connecting with Dr. Kean that helped him focus his efforts on making sure schools and other organizations not only have the devices but have plenty of people on staff trained to use them.
Cathedral made sense first because Utzinger is a Cathedral parent whose kids play sports, but he is eager to introduce Project ADAM to other Indianapolis-area high schools. A school in northern Indiana became the first certified school in the state last year.
Point of pride
Mike Hunker, Cathedral athletic trainer, said while his school has been proactive in acquiring AEDs and getting its 150 staff members trained, partnering with Project ADAM and Riley adds an extra layer of quality and credibility.
Calling it the culmination of a lot of work by a lot of people, Hunker said the Heart Safe School designation is a point of tremendous pride for school administrators, teachers, coaches and staff.
“We had a lot of the pieces in place – the training and AEDs – but there were other things we could do better,” he said. “I looked at this as a great opportunity for us to review what we were doing and improve what we were doing to ensure our students, our staff and our families are in a safe environment.”
Cathedral already had invested heavily in AEDs – there are eight in and around its central campus and three more at its off-campus sports facilities. They are strategically located so that they can be accessed and applied within three minutes of a recognized cardiac emergency.
“Dr. Kean working with us has been great,” Hunker said. “He has provided good insight into what we’re doing and how we’re doing. It’s been a great collaboration.”
What would you do?
To this day, Utzinger wonders if he would have had the courage to do what his neighbor Bill Schlies did that June day in 2017. Schlies was driving by when he saw Utzinger collapsed on the side of the road.
“I’d like to think I would have called 911 and jumped in to do CPR, but you don’t know how you’re going to react when something like this happens,” Utzinger said.
Now, he is most excited that another generation of kids and teachers will not only know what to do at school if they are faced with an emergency like his, but they will take that knowledge with them wherever they go.
Dr. Kean said he is hopeful that Cathedral is the first of many Indianapolis-area schools to be Heart Safe-certified.
“It is wonderful to get that accomplished especially in the setting of COVID,” he said, “no mean feat given all the restrictions.”
“This is hopefully the tip of the iceberg, with the idea that we can start to work with as many school districts as possible to really support the health and safety of all of our kids in the city and ultimately the state.”