Heart attack starts fundraising campaign

By Lesley Jenkins
Star Staff

   After surviving a major heart attack nearly one month ago, Gary Smith is so thankful for a second opportunity at life, that he wants to make sure the piece of equipment that saved him is more available to others who might suffer a sudden cardiac arrest.
   On November 17, Smith was refereeing a basketball game at Happy Valley Middle School. During the fourth quarter, he felt his throat close up, and he bent over to put his hands on his knees. That is all he remembers. Witnesses said he grabbed his chest when he fell to the hardwood floor.
   For what happened in the next few minutes, Smith will always be eternally grateful. Many people worked so hard to keep his heart beating and his lungs breathing. Smith isn't sure how many people were performing CardioPulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) on him, but he has met four people, Debbie McVey, Carol Jones, Tracy Lawhorne and J.D. Hill. The West Carter County Volunteer Fire Department responded to the scene within three minutes after the call was placed to 911 emergency dispatchers. Once on the scene, an Automated External Defibrillator shocked his heart back into a satisfactory rhythm.
   Each minute that the heart is deprived of oxygen, the danger increases that the heart muscle will suffer significant damage. CPR alone is very unlikely to start the victim's heart into an acceptable rhythm, but it is essential to keeping the oxygen and blood flowing until emergency personnel arrive. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), when defibrillation is provided within five to seven minutes, the survival rate from sudden cardiac arrest is as high as 49 percent.
   Because CPR and the AED were used quickly, Smith was recently told by his doctors that he did not suffer any damage to the heart muscle. He joked about his quadruple bypass surgery, "I don't have any muscle damage, but I did get some new pipes."
   His doctors also told him that if he had been anywhere else where he wouldn't have received immediate CPR and had to wait longer for the AED, it is a good chance he would not be alive today.
   It is because of these astonishing facts that Smith decided to start a fundraising program, called the "Power of Life," to buy as many AEDs as possible for schools in Carter County. Jones visited him in the hospital and mentioned the need for this equipment in more schools or places with large amounts of people.
   After recovering from his heart surgery, Smith went to work on the idea, and one thing he did was contact The Star. A meeting was scheduled between Smith and some of the people who had worked so diligently to make sure he did survive. At this meeting on Friday, a surprise was waiting for him.
   He expected to thank all the people involved and tell them and a reporter about "Power of Life," but what he got was a boost for the program.
   Scott Williams, CEO of Sycamore Shoals Hospital, and Dr. Jerry Gastineo, president of the Carter County Medical Society, attended the meeting to announce Mountain States Health Alliance wants to help with the program.
   "We heard about what happened to Gary and we want to help. Mountain States wants to help by saying No. 1, we want to buy the first one (AED). Secondly, after that, every one that your community buys, we will match it. If the community raises enough money to get four AEDs, we will match it. We will get four more. Every one you purchase we will put in one more," Williams announced.
   Gastineo said, "It is kind of a coincidence that the EMA at the annual meeting this issue came up. Since the beginning of the year, we (CCMS) have been looking at the different types that are out there and trying to get the best prices that we could. We had planned on, just coincidentally, putting some of these into various fire departments and schools."
   Williams added, "We will make sure to provide the first one. We will present it to the new school superintendent to put where he wishes. And like I said, as you progress with your fund drive, everyone you get we will match."
   He added, "We are glad you are here with us." Smith replied, "Yeah, really."
   Smith said, "I don't think I can spit a speech out." All he could add to the surprising news was, "I am touched."
   Gastineo said, "I understand we are able to get them at a price of $1,640 each, which is about 50 percent the price we were looking at originally. The machine is very user friendly and very easy for anybody to use. You can use it even if you have never seen it before. It is 1, 2, 3 steps and it talks to you and tells you what to do."
   Williams added that AEDs are the best piece of equipment and breakthrough in heart attack care since CPR. Eventually, he expects AEDs to be placed in any area with any number of people, whether it be churches, schools, and even in cars.
   Weeks before the meeting, when Smith returned home from the Johnson City Medical Center, he took the time to write a letter during the first snow of the year in the first week of December. Smith said, "I felt like a little kid seeing his first snow. It was truly special for me."
   He continues, "What do you say to a group of people who step up and give their all to save your life? . . . Now, due to these 'special persons,' who I do not know very well, and the man upstairs placing them and myself in the right place at the right time, I have another chance to take care of my family and friends and be there for them. If not for these 'strangers,' that chance to live again wouldn't be there.
   "I know there were more involved at the school and would love to know who they are. I can't say anything that would show my appreciation enough. My admiration and respect for them 'stepping up' will never be forgotten and could never be rewarded enough."
   To make a donation to the "Power of Life" please mail donations or contact: Carter County Bank, c/o Janice Carver, Main Office, 601 East Elk Avenue, Elizabethton, TN 37643.
   Smith's company, AirMechanics, began the donations with $200.