Son and father Aaron and Galen Decker are pictured just inside FirstHealth's Reid Heart Center, where Galen had a stent implant procedure on Sept. 2 after collapsing in sudden cardiac arrest at the finish line of the Labor Day Tour de Moore Classic. Aaron, a respiratory therapist in the same Cardiac Cath Lab where his father was brought after the incident, was standing nearby when his dad stopped breathing and revived him with CPR and three jolts of an AED.
PINEHURST – On Labor Day 2013, Sanford resident Galen Decker completed the 28-mile cruise segment of the Tour de Moore Classic, greeted relatives and friends at the finish line, and – for all practical purposes – lay down in Southern Pines pine straw and died.
Like the estimated 300,000-plus annual victims of sudden cardiac arrest, the 65-year-old Decker was not breathing and had no detectable pulse. Like most of those who survive these incidents, he was lucky enough to have someone nearby who knew what to do in an emergency.
In Decker's case, it was his son, a respiratory therapist in the Cardiac Cath Lab at FirstHealth’s Reid Heart Center. Within seconds, Aaron Decker shifted from race onlooker to professional lifesaver and started CPR while calling out orders to others who had stepped up to help.
Fifteen to 20 minutes and three jolts of an automated external defibrillator (AED) later, Galen Decker’s heart was beating again and he was on his way to the same Moore Regional Cath Lab where Aaron spends his working days. The cardiologist Aaron had contacted by cell phone while continuing CPR compressions to his dad’s chest was among those awaiting his arrival.
A month later, father and son are still trying to absorb the events of that chaotic September morning. For Galen, there isn’t much to recall.
“I don’t remember one iota of anything,” he says.
Aaron Decker is just glad he was nearby.
“It worked out the best possible way it could have,” he says.
Although he remembers little about the day’s events and a few days following, Galen does recall feeling some discomfort during the actual ride. But, he says, he rested briefly and headed toward the finish line near the Campbell House in Southern Pines.
He also recalls that he was talking to sons Aaron, Brian and Brent and other onlookers when he began to feel “light-headed.”
Otherwise, he says, there was “no warning of anything.”
As both father and son recall, Galen sat down and got up a few times and even stretched out at least once before a first responder with a blood pressure cuff arrived on the scene. Even though the reading appeared normal, the responding EMT advised calling an ambulance.
About that time, Galen started complaining of pain in his left arm.
“Shortly afterward,” Aaron says, “down he went. I sent (brother) Brian for an AED, and me and the EMT jumped on him.”
Aaron was doing chest compressions when Brian returned with the AED, but the battery on the device failed after one shock. After two additional jolts from a second AED, Galen started to breathe and his heart began to beat. Soon he was in the ambulance and heading for Moore Regional.
A head CT at the hospital found no problem, but a cardiac catheterization revealed a 100 percent blockage in the main artery to Galen's heart. Patrick Simpson, M.D., an interventional cardiologist who was on call that day, although not the physician with whom Aaron had communicated earlier, implanted a stent to reopen it.
Following a few days of mental fuzziness, Galen is now recovering well, has returned to work at his Sanford print shop and is established with Dr. Simpson for follow-up appointments.
“I feel fine,” he says.
Aaron experienced some mental and physical exhaustion that hit him the day after the incident, but otherwise is just grateful for the training and experience that helped him save his dad’s life. A 13-year employee of FirstHealth, first in respiratory therapy and now in the Cath Lab, he earned a degree in exercise physiology from Western Carolina University before entering the respiratory therapy program at Sandhills Community College on the recommendation of a friend.
“Your training takes over,” he says of his response to his father's emergency. “I've been in this situation a lot of times – you can't sit there and do nothing – but that's the first time I've had to do anything out in the street.”
Aaron’s Cath Lab supervisor, Pamela Sands, R.N., is proud of but not surprised by his response to the incident.
“I’m not surprised by Aaron's actions,” she says. “He has been working in the Cath Lab for seven years and deals with these types of emergencies frequently and has always acted calmly and professionally. He was very humble when he told me about this event and told me he guessed his six years in the respiratory department and seven years in the Cath Lab paid off. I'm proud of him and how he handled the situation, and I'm sure his dad was glad he was around, too.”