Aarone Wild has a wild and wonderful tale to tell about her husband and soulmate, Eric.
It begins with him dying on their bedroom floor in February 2017 and ends two years later, as the Grand Rapids, Michigan, couple return to martial arts class with their longtime teacher, Master Lee.
It’s an improbable story with innumerable twists and turns.
For five solid weeks that winter, Eric, then 55, lay in a hospital bed—first in the ICU at Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center and then at the Spectrum Health Rehab and Nursing Center on Fuller Avenue—with little to no awareness of what was happening within or around him.
All the while, doctors used every tool and treatment at their disposal to promote his survival and recovery.
Eric’s heart had arrested three times—at home, in the ambulance and in the ER at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital. Each time, his rescuers restored his heartbeat, but ultimately, the trauma sent him into cardiogenic shock.
This despite having passed his annual physical with flying colors just two weeks earlier.
Still, CT scans showed normal brain activity. If his multidisciplinary ICU team could support him long enough for his heart and other organs to recover, he just might be OK.
It included surgeries and blood transfusions to deal with internal bleeding and other problems.
“Every complication that could happen to him based on what we were doing seemed to happen to him,” said Brian Trethowan, MD, a cardiothoracic critical care doctor with Spectrum Health Medical Group. “We see a spectrum of clinical cases here in the Meijer Heart Center. This was a much more unusual, complex, challenging and prolonged clinical case.”
From day one—and many times thereafter—Eric’s prospects looked grim, Aarone said.
“The first 24 hours that we were there, they told us, ‘You need to call a funeral home. You need to make arrangements,’” she said.
And yet, Eric held on. Through every procedure, every new support device, every medication, he held on, as little by little his body responded.
Glimmers of hope kept Aarone and the couple’s six adult children buoyed throughout the process. One night, for example, Eric had a fleeting breakthrough in response to an Elvis Presley song.
“His favorite person in the whole world is Elvis,” Aarone said, choking up. “(Our daughter) started playing ‘Suspicious Minds’ for him and he started mouthing the words. Just out of the blue—completely from comatose to mouthing the words.”
Eric’s responsiveness quickly faded, but that moment carried the assurance the family needed. Eric was still in there. They just had to wait for him.
In cases like these, medical teams provide full support in the early stages and downgrade the support as recovery progresses. It takes fortitude on the part of the family, Dr. Trethowan said.
Eric’s family “had incredible patience with the whole process; they never complained,” he said. “They’re gracious people.”
At least two nonmedical factors played a role in Eric’s recovery, the doctor said—favorable genetics and a strong baseline of physical fitness, thanks to years of daily Tai Chi and Chi Gong practice, plus twice-weekly Kung Fu classes.
“The speed with which he recovered is simply due to the fact that he had done all of these things in his past life,” Dr. Trethowan said.
After three weeks at Spectrum Health Meijer Heart Center, Eric had progressed enough to move to a Spectrum Health long-term care facility for continued recuperation. Though off the ventilator, he was still far from normal, both mentally and physically.
“Even if you’re the fittest and healthiest person in the world, when we commit you to bed for two to three weeks, you are weak as a kitten by the end of it,” Dr. Trethowan said. “It’s quite a profound loss of muscle per day in the critical care unit.”
Cognitively, Eric still “wasn’t there,” Aarone said. As he slowly woke up, he grew defiant and had to be placed in restraints.
“He got real belligerent. He pulled out his catheter twice, he pulled out his feeding tube twice and then bit through it once,” she said. “We started negotiating with him like a toddler.”
Eric remembers none of this. What he does remember is an abrupt awakening two days before his discharge from the long-term care center to a rehabilitation hospital.
Some friends from his workplace had come by to visit, Aarone said. As she talked with them for the better part of an hour, Eric took no notice.
Then, in an instant, he was back.
“All of a sudden, Eric looks at the people beside his bed and he goes, ‘Hey! Travis, Seth, when did you guys get here?’” Aarone said.
“There was just a moment, and that was it—he was completely there mentally, and I mean completely there. … And my friend and I are going, ‘Uh, what just happened here?’”
From that point on, Eric remembers everything.
“I have no recollection from the night I went to bed until that moment,” he said.
That makes 36 missing days, from the night of the Super Bowl until the day after his birthday.
“I just had to reboot,” he said, smiling.
Long road back
Months of grueling physical and occupational therapy followed, as Eric worked his way from bed to wheelchair, wheelchair to walker, walker to cane and cane to independence.
He engaged in speech therapy to work on problem-solving skills and rebuild lost neural connections.
Early in his rehab process, he had a cardioverter-defibrillator implanted to guard against future arrhythmias, the kind of freak irregular heart rhythms that had triggered his cardiac arrests and set off this chain of events.
In late June, nearly five months after his heart stopped, Eric went back to work in his role as a Spectrum Health supply chain coordinator. He worked just two hours a day, returning home each day exhausted.
As his stamina gradually increased, so did his hours at the warehouse. Today, Eric works full time and again practices Tai Chi daily. He recently decided he was strong enough to resume Kung Fu classes.
Physically, he’s still building muscle and resilience. Mentally, it took about a year to regain full clarity, but now he feels like himself again.
“I would say it changed me as far as, I’m a lot more social,” Eric said. Before the event, he tended to stay home more, he said. “Now when people want to go somewhere? ‘Let’s do it.’”
Expressions of love and appreciation come more easily for him, too.
“Even with co-workers and friends, just a quick mention of, ‘Yup, you guys rock, you’re awesome. Just want to let you know.'”
Back to the beginning
The story of Eric’s wild ride wouldn’t be complete without returning to the beginning. Because this wasn’t just a case of: husband collapses, wife calls 911, paramedics revive him and rush him to the hospital.
No, Eric and Aarone were in bed that night, fast asleep. Eric’s loud gasps woke his wife, who first thought he was crying. Turning on the light, she saw that his face was blue. She pulled him to the floor and started chest compressions while grabbing a cellphone and calling 911. It was 3 a.m.
The fire department, sheriff’s office and state police all sent vehicles, but incredibly, none of the personnel who arrived were certified first responders, Aarone said.
She continued doing chest compressions for 20 minutes while awaiting an ambulance.
The story gets worse: When the ambulance arrived, the buzzer to open the couple’s outer apartment door wouldn’t work, so Aarone had to run up a flight of stairs to let the paramedics in. In the process, their own apartment door locked behind her, with no one inside to let her in and with Eric “dying on our bedroom floor,” she said.
“I was screaming in the hallway, ‘The door’s locked. I don’t care how you get it open—you get it open.’”
Using a battering ram, the paramedics got in and shocked Eric to life with an AED.
They got a heartbeat and then lost it, Aarone said, so they “put him on a gurney, and the EMT got on top of him and was doing compressions as they were going up the stairs.”
Hearing the story retold, Eric said it’s hard to make sense of everything that’s happened.
“I really still am trying to wrap my mind around it,” he said. “It’s pretty nuts, I’ll tell you that. I died three times. But here I am, thank God.”
Eric’s cardiologist, Renzo Loyaga-Rendon, MD, PhD, gives Aarone a great deal of credit for saving her husband’s life at the outset.
“Those first minutes or seconds after a cardiac arrest are extremely important,” Dr. Loyaga said. “The likelihood of success, particularly of brain function to remain intact, really depends on those first minutes.”
With the benefit of low-dose heart medications, Eric’s heart has now completely normalized, Dr. Loyaga said.
“We expect that his overall survival should be similar to the rest of the population.”
These days, Eric and Aarone—who were married eight years ago in the same Las Vegas chapel where Elvis tied the knot—treasure each day together in a new way.
Things like gifts seem almost trivial now, Aarone said, “because I’ve already gotten such a big gift. And I feel like he’s just a blessing and that life is so fragile.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I’m in love with a good woman right there,” Eric said. “She keeps me going, thank God.
“I picked the right one.”