Teamwork made Tony's heart work

When Tony Comber collapsed with a cardiac arrest while out running in February an extraordinary lucky streak saved his life.

His fellow runners that night included a surgeon, a nurse, and a rheumatologist who gave him medical attention while a fourth runner who is a fire fighter organized the scene.

Without their efforts – and the shock from a defibrillator retrieved in an incredible three minutes by one of the club’s top runners – Tony may have died or suffered brain damage.

Now fully recovered and back running again, the 58-year-old member of the club wants people to find out where their nearest defibrillator is, and know how to use one.

“I don’t recall anything about what happened,” said Tony, who lives in Maxey. “I felt no different to normal during the day and went along to the usual Tuesday night run with the Stamford Striders. Then I woke up three days later in hospital with monitors attached to my chest having come out of an induced coma. All I remember is waking up quite calm with all the monitors on, and doctors and nurses having explained what happened.”

Engineer Tony was running with about 70 members of the club when they reached a rest stop outside a newsagent.  Runners heard a bang, which was Tony’s head as it hit the pavement, fracturing the right side of his skull. Run organizer Robin Ball said, “He had a cardiac arrest and just went down, like a felled tree.”

Consultant orthopaedic surgeon Rupert Clifton was among the runners. Having previously worked in a hospital resuscitation  team, he quickly realized Tony wasn’t breathing so started CPR.

Meanwhile, Nick Sheehan, a retired rheumatologist with experience of running a hospital resuscitation team, assessed Tony’s head injury, monitored his airway and checked for a pulse, while a retired nurse held Tony’s hand and calmly talked to him.

A 999 call was made and three of the club’s fastest runners sprinted off in three different directions to find their nearest defibrillators. The first back came from Stamford College, with one from a swimming pool and another from the recreation ground fast behind it.

“I had been doing CPR for about three minutes when the first defibrillator arrived,” said Rupert who works at Peterborough City Hospital. “That’s when you start to tire, and the person also starts to lose oxygen to the brain, which can resulted in brain damage in as little as three minutes.” 

Fortunately for the medics on scene, the lightning fast runners were able to pass over the defibrillators to help revive Tony. “Once you attach the pads, the machine checks for a heartbeat and only allows a shock to be given if the heart rhythm is abnormal,” Rupert explains.

An automated voice in the defibrillator announced that a shock was needed and, once everyone had stood back, it was delivered.

Nick said: “I had assumed we would need to give him another shock but I could feel a pulse in Tony’s neck and within a short time he was breathing again.

“From my point of view things looked good. His pupils weren’t showing signs of oxygen deprivation and it was gratifying that teamwork had helped to restart Tony’s heart and breathing.”

The teamwork went beyond that of Rupert, Nick and the runners who fetched defibrillators. People in houses nearby brought out blankets and towels just as the ambulance crew arrived to stabilize Tony and take him to hospital. 

“There was no panic, it was all very urgent but calm,” said run organizer and club chairman Robin Ball, who was on the scene. “But had we been out in the middle of the countryside the story may have been very different.

“We were extremely lucky to have been so well resourced.”

Tony, who has cardiovascular disease and had six stents fitted to his heart after a heart attack 14 years ago, credits running with helping him to recover so quickly. Six weeks after being discharged he was back running with the Striders and has just completed his first 10 mile run since his cardiac arrest. 

He had one more stent fitted after his cardiac arrest, and caught pneumonia while on the ward, extending his hospital stay to three weeks.

“The cardiac arrest was caused by a blocked artery that hadn’t been previously treated and it could have happened while I was sitting on the sofa at home. But having already been running, my blood was pumping round my body quickly and was full of oxygen, which gave me the best chance of survival,” Tony says.

“It’s been a very good recovery and hopefully I’ll be racing again in September - the target is to do the Great Eastern half marathon on 16 October.”

Currently, fewer than 1 in 10 people survive an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, with the chances of survival without CPR decreasing by up to 10% with every passing minute.

“Considering the odds, I count myself extremely lucky to survive. I owe Stamford Striders – all of whose leaders are first aid trained and all know where the nearest defibrillators are - and the medical team my life. There was a team of people who assisted me that night and they all helped.

“If I had collapsed elsewhere, I’m not sure I would have survived. I’m really grateful for the people who helped me on the night and so are my family.”

Tony has gone back to work and has made sure the first aiders know about him – but wants to spread the message wider. 

He said: “It’s essential that more people learn CPR. That’s the message I really want to spread.

“Robin Ball and the team, with help from the Stamford Mercury, have been mapping defibrillators across the local area and the Striders are also looking at holding a CPR training session as part of Resuscitation UK’s Restart A Heart campaign for anyone who wants to learn.

“You never know what situation you might find yourself in where you really need it and it could mean the difference between life and death.”

“Understand in an emergency how you can call someone before you’re in the middle of a crisis. And make sure all defibrillators are signed up to the Circuit so that 999 call handlers can direct you to the nearest one, as every second counts in an emergency,” Tony says.

He was grateful to be able to thank his rescuers in person in what he admits was a moving reunion. “Two weeks after I came out of hospital I went to a Tuesday night training session with my wife Fiona and met the team who’d saved me including all the defibrillator runners and had the opportunity to say thank you in person.

“Their last recollection of me was me lying dead on the floor, with blood coming out of my head, so to see how fit I looked – even though I’d lost a fair bit of weight in hospital – was a real surprise to them. They all said how well I looked, and that there was no need to thank them as I’d have done the same for them. We have such a great team spirit as a club.

“To meet the people who have effectively saved your life was a very emotional time for me and my wife. It was a massive thing for Rupert to have given me CPR and applied the defibrillator but those who ran to get the machines were equally important. Rupert had started to run out of puff after a couple of minutes, so it could have seriously impacted my health if the defibrillator had taken a bit longer to arrive.” 

Tony admits he has now invested in a state-of-the-art running heart rate monitor that provides real-time ECG measures and real-time feedback on his heart and lungs - and can even put him in touch with a cardiologist online to give him advice.

“I think it gives Fiona and I reassurance that there are no abnormalities with my heart beat, and helps me to build up my running slowly and safely. It’s great that I run with a club who are very supportive and are encouraging me back to achieve my goal of racing later this year!”

To improve survival rates, Resuscitation Council UK is urging guardians of defibrillators to register their devices on The Circuit: the national defibrillator network. 

It is estimated that tens of thousands of defibrillators remain unknown to ambulance services, meaning emergency services cannot direct bystanders to them in the event of a cardiac arrest, and ultimately help save a life.