Tucson Man, Without a Heartbeat for 17 Minutes, Thanks his Rescuers, Medical Team

Cardiac patient Robert Freel of Tucson will be reunited with the two sheriff’s deputies who rescued him and with some of his hospital caregivers at 1:15 p.m. Oct. 29 at Banner – UMC Tucson. Media are invited to cover the reunion and interview Mr. Freel, the deputies and his physicians. Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos also will be present.

A  70-year-old Tucson man who suffered sudden cardiac arrest while driving his car is alive today after a dramatic rescue by Pima County Sheriff’s deputies and life-saving medical care provided at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson.

Robert Freel, a retired physiologist, was driving alone near Oracle and River Road on Sept. 28, 2015, when he passed out. His car drifted to a stop, blocking traffic. Deputy Jeremy Butcher stopped to investigate and found Freel slumped unconscious in his locked car. With the help of a couple of good Samaritans, he used a sledge hammer to shatter the car window. Deputy Nicholas Phaneuf arrived as they were getting Freel out of the car. Once he was on the ground, the deputies alternated the delivery of chest compression only CPR, the no-breaths technique developed at the University of Arizona Sarver Heart Center. 

They continued CPR until paramedics arrived and transported Freel to Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, a nationally accredited Chest Pain Center. For a 17-minute period, Freel was without a pulse but emergency physicians were able to resuscitate him at the hospital. He was whisked to the cardiac catheterization laboratory where he was found to have an occluded coronary artery which required opening with a stent. He was then initiated on a hypothermia protocol for post-cardiac arrest patients. Despite these efforts, his condition remained critical and highly unstable, and his family prepared for the worst.

That evening, with his fluid-filled  lungs unable to obtain adequate oxygen from the mechanical ventilator, and his heart unable to maintain adequate circulation to supply his vital organs, the decision was made to place him on an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine.

With ECMO, catheters are inserted into a major artery and vein and attached to a pump that oxygenates and circulates blood. ECMO functions as an artificial heart and lung, allowing the patient’s own organs to rest and heal. Most patients who need ECMO are almost certain to die without this level of life support.

Banner – UMC Tucson is an ECMO center of excellence and the only hospital in Southern Arizona offering this therapy. The hospital’s ECMO team regularly travels across Arizona and out of state to retrieve and transport patients back to Tucson for this advanced care, said ECMO specialist Toshinobu Kazui, MD, PhD, a cardiothoracic surgeon with the University of Arizona Department of Surgery and Sarver Heart Center.

Astonishingly, after only a few hours on ECMO, Freel’s heart began to stabilize and recover. He was removed from the ECMO machine and mechanical ventilator on the third hospital day.  By the fourth day, he was sitting up in a chair. Freel was discharged from Banner – UMC Tucson with complete neurological function after 11 days and is now recovering at home.

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The UA Sarver Heart Center offers free chest-compression-only CPR training resources on the web at http://heart.arizona.edu/learn-cpr.