Stan Wisniewski, 79, had about as close a brush a death as you can get on Dec. 17, 1954. On that day, Stan, in fact, did die. But, miraculously, he didn’t stay dead.
I learned about Stan, “the oldest living cardiac arrest survivor,” in the local newspaper. He lives in San Dimas, a foothill community about 20 miles east of downtown LA and just a few miles west of my hometown of Upland.
Mr. Wisniewski would long ago have taken up permanent residence in a Chicago-area cemetery if it weren’t for the efforts of some quick-thinking doctors, who luckily were just steps away when Stan’s young, healthy heart suddenly stopped beating.
Stan suffered cardiac arrest in 1954 while working in the X-ray lab of a Chicago hospital. It happened without warning–Stan was 24 and in perfect health.
A doctor who happened to be nearby opened Stan’s chest with a penknife and began massaging his heart with his bare hands. Doctors massaged his heart for more than two hours before they got it beating again.
It’s an amazing story well told by Inland Valley Daily Bulletin reporter Michelle J. Mills.
Here’s the meat of the article, but you can read the entire text of “Sudden death survivor” and see a photo of Stan and his lovely wife Jaci by clicking here.
At 24, Wisniewski was a sturdy 5 feet, 10 inches and 190 pounds. He didn’t smoke, drink or stay up late. He passed Navy and life insurance physicals with ease.
“The only problem I had was one small filling in my tooth; that was it,” Wisniewski said.
At noon on Dec. 17, 1954, it seemed like a normal day in the hospital’s X-ray darkroom, except that Wisniewski felt a little warm. The two techs working in the darkroom with him joked that it must be his Christmas socks. The next thing they heard was a thump: Wisniewski had hit the floor.
“The cardiac arrest and the coronary are two different things,” Wisniewski explained. “The coronary – or heart attack – is the plumbing section of the heart, the arteries and the veins. The cardiac arrest, as in my case, was electrical, which is sudden death. When that happens, you are dead – and I was.”
Because there were no lights on in the darkroom, the techs didn’t realize what had happened and continued with their work, processing the X-rays by hand: three minutes in the developer, then in the fix solution. Only then did the techs turn on the lights and see Wisniewski’s body on the floor.
Dr. Joel Knudson happened to be nearby, so he was called in and began artificial respiration. Soon, Dr. C. David Brown arrived and administered a shot of epinephrine into Wisniewski’s pericardium, the double-walled sac that contains the heart and the roots of the great vessels.
There was no respiration and no pulse. Brown, an ex-Army surgeon, realized they needed to do something fast.
“Dr. Brown said he had nothing to lose,” Wisniewski said. “I was 24 years old and in perfect health, so he opened my chest up with a pocketknife and cut out two ribs. Then he started internal massage with his fingers.”
The hospital’s chief surgeon, Dr. George F. Schroeder, came down and offered to help. Continuing the heart massage, the doctors got Wisniewski on a gurney and took him to surgery.
The PA system crackled to life, calling for any free physicians to head to surgery for an emergency, but it was lunchtime and many of the doctors had already left for their offices to see their afternoon patients. The doctors who answered the call took three-minute turns massaging Wisniewski’s heart. Sterile techniques had been left by the wayside: They worked without gloves.
A priest was called from St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital across the street to perform the last rites. But the doctors were not ready to give up.
There was only one defibrillator in the entire city of Chicago. It was tracked down, delivered and plugged in. It blew a fuse, so it was useless. The doctors continued the heart massage.
“Everybody’s hands were in my chest,” Wisniewski said.
It had been two hours and 15 minutes, and still the doctors had been unable to get Wisniewski’s heart beating again, so they administered medication to stop it and another medication to restart it. Finally, his heart twitched wildly and began beating. Wisniewski was sewn up, pumped with antibiotics and placed in a room in an oxygen tent.
Read how Jaci, Stan’s wife of more than 50 years, learns what happened to him, and what life has in store for Stan and Jaci.
FULL TEXT OF “SUDDEN DEATH SURVIVOR”