It was the evening of July 14 when Tom McGarthwaite sat down at his computer to check his email and quite unexpectedly died.
Tom and his wife Cheryl had just returned from a trip to Minnetonka where they were helping their youngest daughter, Lisa, move into a new apartment. After dinner, the two made the trek back to Granite Falls, and it was between 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. when it happened.
"Tom had suffered, I didn't know it at the time, Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA)," said Cheryl. "He tipped over onto the book case next to the computer and stopped breathing. Luckily both of us were downstairs and I was about five feet away. I thought he was faking it initially. I said: Oh, come on, you're not that tired. Wake up. But he truly wasn't totally alive."
Cheryl says the words, "not totally alive" with an awkward sort of chuckle that thinly veils the cauldron of emotion that still boils up at the thought of the evening––and it seems amazing that she's able to speak of it at all. Then again, the near-widow proved to be a rock throughout the ordeal, taking it upon herself to administer CPR and later holding it together when telling doctors it was time to 'pull the plug.'
Realizing Tom wasn't faking, Cheryl recalled wheeling her husband back in the chair, bringing him to the floor and beginning chest compressions while simultaneously fishing her cell phone out of her pocket to dial 9-11.
"First, the police were there in less than two minutes with an AED (Automated External Defibrillator), which they used to begin shocking him. The ambulance arrived in less than three minutes––and that's the miracle of living in a good little town, with a good police and ambulance. But thank heavens the police had an AED in that car because the faster he started breathing and his heart beating again, the better the outcome you're going to get."
After it was determined that there wasn't a significant problem with his heart, Tom's body temperature was reduced to induce hypothermia, thereby slowing the system down so the brain is kept from swelling and oxygen deprivation. A helicopter dispatched from Redwood Falls then airlifted him to St. Cloud Hospital's cardiac unit.
Doctor's told Cheryl that Tom's chances for recovery would correlate with the speed in which he woke up, but after 24, 48, 72 hours and so on, he remained unconscious.
"His kidney's quit working and he needed to be on a ventilator because he couldn't get to breathing on his own. There was also concern of brain stem damage and that he wouldn't have his autonomic system working," recalled Cheryl. "So after four days they told me that he probably wasn't going to recover. Maybe he could be on a ventilator, receive kidney dialysis and be a vegetable––if we wished to continue treating him."
Page 2 of 3 - Left with a no-win situation Cheryl did what she thought Tom would want.
"I said, well, you know, he's not a man that ever went to the doctor. He wouldn't want that, let's not do this any more."
Moved to palliative care, Tom was taken off life support and administered drugs meant to stave off any potential suffering. It was to be only a matter of time, the doctors told Cheryl. He wouldn't be able to breathe on his own.
Only he did.
"I said I thought you said he would die right away, he wouldn't be able to breathe," said Cheryl. "And they said, well we're no longer doing kidney dialysis and his kidney's aren't functioning. THAT will kill him."
But it didn't.
At some level his kidney's continued to function, and the hours, which turned to days, rolled on.
"Eight days out, our daughter thought Tom was squeezing his hand. But we couldn't get him to do it and show the doctors," recalled Cheryl. "Nine days out, Tom seemed to be looking at us, but his eyes didn't look like they were focused and there was all sorts of this gunky stuff in them. So I told the doctor that and he said: well, let me go look. And he shined a light in and said his pupils are non reactive, he's blind."
Dejected, Cheryl once again tempered any hopes and sought the comfort of 16 friends from the "6:00 a.m. Swimmers" (a senior swimming group of the Kilowatt Community Center) who had traveled to be present with the McGarthwaite family as a surprise. Together they made their way to the hospital lounge and prayed.
"Now this is really how it happened. I went back to the room, because I had asked one of the girls to take pictures because I knew this was the end of mine and Tom's time together––the doctors told me he probably couldn't live another day––but my son said, Mom, I can't do this anymore. Dad talked."
"I said, John!"
"He said, no, the nurse asked: could I reposition this pillow on your head? And dad hollered at her, no!"
"And then he started to wake up. And under his breath, really soft, he went, CChherryylll... And that was it. I went to go get the doctors and nurses and I said we're not doing this anymore. And then it just got better and better and better."
With a laugh and deep exhale, Cheryl completes the tale, then turns to her side and casts her gaze on her husband.
"To me," he says with a subtle smirk. "I just woke up. It was like nine days of nothing."
Page 3 of 3 - Sitting across the room Tom looks pretty good for a guy who is supposed to be deceased, or at the very least a vegetable. As it is, he has gained back almost the entirety of his former function––his balance is a little off and he still lacks energy and endurance, but he is expected to continue to recover significantly for a period of six months to a year.
"I had one nurse tell me that she had never seen anything like this in her 22 years," Cheryl said. "It was miracle, after miracle, after miracle."
After 19 days, Tom continued to surprise doctors when it was determined he was well enough to go home. He would be able to receive all therapies needed through the Granite Falls Hospital and its Home Healthcare services.
Since the ordeal Tom has changed his eating habits, walks 3.5 miles per day and now comes equipped with a pace-maker––as it was determined that the cause of the initial attack was an irregular heartbeat. He is also considering getting back into driver's education, which he taught prior to the event. But in the meantime he has become a popular speaker with the Sudden Cardiac Arrest support groups and forums––where he has been joined by St. Cloud Electrophysiologist Dr. Keith Lurie in campaigning medical practitioners to allot more time for patients who have undergone hypothermia to wake up taking them off life support.
Today, the McGarthwaites say their relationship is stronger than ever, even if Cheryl "pulled the plug on me," as McGarthwaite likes to joke.
"He wants to get a shirt made that says: Died, been there done that," said Cheryl of Tom, who seems to be finding the most humor in the whole affair.
With a pair of new twin grandchildren, the McGarthwaites have plenty to live for and are looking forward to getting the most out of their new lease on life together.
"I'm much deeper in my faith and the belief that we may not know why and when things happen but we still need to be in the here and now and struggle to stay there," said Cheryl. "I truly treasure not being a widow and having Tom in my life."