The day before a checkup, his heart stopped

By Diane Daniel, American Heart Association News

Heart attack survivor Scott Kern. (Photo courtesy of Trisha Kern)
Heart attack and cardiac arrest survivor Scott Kern. (Photo courtesy of Trisha Kern)

Scott Kern didn't have much time to exercise.

An executive at a chain of discount stores, he got to work early to get a head start on what often was a 12-hour workday. His incentive was getting home early enough to see his young daughter, Katie, before she went to bed.

Scott, who lives in Norfolk, Virginia, was in relatively good shape. He grew up playing sports but hadn't worked out regularly for many years. He knew he could stand to lose a few pounds.

His wife, Trisha, was more health-minded. She introduced him to healthier meals and often encouraged him to exercise. She was especially concerned because she feared what might already be lurking his body. She knew Scott had a family history of heart disease. His maternal grandfather died from a cardiac arrest at age 52. Plus, Scott grew up on a diet of traditional New Orleans cooking, which included lots of butter and fried foods.

In 2018, Scott made a New Year's resolution to get healthy.

He began getting up even earlier than usual so he'd have time to hit the gym. Several days a week, he lifted weights then hopped on an elliptical machine. The cardio portion felt more difficult than he'd remembered.

"I must have gotten really out of shape," the then-43-year-old thought.

He remembered that a corporate perk was a complete health workup with a concierge doctor. He made an appointment for Feb. 20.

On Feb. 19, Scott went to the gym, then was at work by 7 a.m. A few of his colleagues were already at their desks.

Scott walked into his office and collapsed.

Several people heard him hit the floor and came running to him. Seeing that he was not breathing, they called 911. The group included Dan Hay and Jermaine Bennett, who were trained in CPR. The duo immediately attempted to resuscitate Scott.

Another worker grabbed an AED from the wall. Short for automated external defibrillator, an AED is a portable electronic device that analyzes the heart rhythm and, if needed, can deliver a shock to try restoring a normal rhythm. No one knew how to operate it, so they were relieved that, once opened, the device talked them through every step.

Scott Kern (center) with Dan Hay (left) and Jermaine Bennett – the men who saved his life by performing CPR and using an AED. (Photo courtesy of Trisha Kern)
Scott Kern (center) with Dan Hay (left) and Jermaine Bennett – the men who saved his life by performing CPR and using an AED. (Photo courtesy of Trisha Kern)

An ambulance arrived within minutes. Paramedics took Scott to the nearest hospital, only a couple miles away.

Because Scott couldn't breathe on his own, doctors hooked him up to a ventilator and put him in a medically induced coma. Hours turned into days, which turned into more than a week.

During that time, a doctor told Trisha, "His MRI is OK but he's probably never going to wake up."

"There is no way I'm giving up hope," she replied. "My husband is coming home."

As she drove to the hospital every morning, Trisha blared the tune that's become an inspirational anthem to many: "Fight Song."

"I needed to get myself ready for whatever I had to face," she said. "I had to advocate for him every single day. It was really, really hard."

Doctors and Trisha tried unsuccessfully to rouse Scott from the coma several times. It finally happened on the 10th day – the day Katie turned 5. Her birthday wish came true.

Scott Kern (left) recovering in the hospital with his daughter, Katie, at his side. (Photo courtesy of Trisha Kern)
Scott Kern (left) recovering in the hospital with his daughter, Katie, at his side. (Photo courtesy of Trisha Kern)

Although Scott was conscious, he remained on a ventilator while doctors tried to figure out what caused his cardiac arrest. The coma had prevented them from running certain tests.

Doctors determined he'd had a heart attack. It was caused by blockages in two of his heart's arteries. Doctors restored proper blood flow by inserting two stents via a catheterization procedure. Doctors also determined Scott had developed a rare complication: an infection in his lungs likely caused by food particles that became lodged there during CPR.

After several weeks in intensive care, Scott was moved to a different hospital for extended recovery. The ventilator was finally removed six weeks after his heart attack and cardiac arrest.

"The ventilator was the worst part of the entire experience," he said.

Scott lost a lot of motor function. He couldn't write or walk.

While he was still on the ventilator, Trisha had brought him children's magnetic alphabet boards so he could spell out words. With in-patient physical therapy, he was able to write again and slowly began to use his legs.

At the end of April, Scott went home.

At first, he used a wheelchair or a walker and relied on supplemental oxygen. Trisha put a chair on the landing of their stairs so he could stop halfway and rest.

That June, he began attending cardiac rehabilitation. The workouts gave him the confidence to increase his heart rate without fearing he was risking his health.

He returned to work part time in July. By September, he was working full time – only at different hours than before his heart attack and cardiac arrest.

"I will not be the first person to work – ever," Scott said. "First, I exercise and have breakfast with my daughter before she goes to school."

Scott and Trisha also have begun spreading the word about heart disease, lifestyle changes and CPR and AED awareness. Scott credits Hay, Bennett and other colleagues with saving his life. The couple have become involved with their local office of the American Heart Association. Scott was chair of its Hampton Roads Heart Walk in 2020 and will soon be chair of its executive board of directors.

The Kern family with their dog at the Hampton Roads Heart Walk in 2020. Clockwise from left: Scott, Trisha and Katie. (Photo courtesy of the Kern family)
The Kern family with their dog at the Hampton Roads Heart Walk in 2020. Clockwise from left: Scott, Trisha and Katie. (Photo courtesy of the Kern family)

Scott has followed Trisha's lead and is eating a mostly plant-based diet. He continues to exercise nearly daily.

In addition to spending quality time with Katie, Scott and Trisha prioritize their relationship.

"We create a lot of white space on the calendar just for us," she said.

Between a healthier work-life balance, renewed devotion to his health and tightened bonds with his family and community, Scott is proud of how things turned out.

"I feel better than ever," he said, "totally energized."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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