Skip to content
  1. Latest News

Freakonomics MD: How to Save a Stranger’s Heart

From Freakonomics MD: There are a lot of stories about cardiac arrest, and each one can help us learn something. Sometimes because the patient also happens to be a researcher. Dr. Kevin Volpp is a doctor and economist at the University of Pennsylvania. You heard him recently on an episode of Freakonomics, M.D., on whether we can pay people to be healthier.
Kevin VOLPP: It happened on July 9th of 2021. I had been training for a half Ironman triathlon with one of my daughters. I was probably in the best shape I’d been in since I was 25 years old. And I felt great. And then one evening I was with one of my daughters at a sports tournament in Cincinnati, Ohio. And we’re at dinner and without any warning, all of a sudden, I just keeled over. Fortunately, my daughter and I were with two people. One was John White, who’s the squash coach at Drexel. The other is Gina Stoker, who’s the head squash pro at the Cynwyd Club.  And they were there with my daughter and some of her teammates to coach them at this tournament. Gina immediately called 9-1-1. My daughter later told me within 20 seconds, John realized I didn’t have a pulse and started CPR. And those two people taking action right away clearly played a big role in my surviving this incident.
The emergency medical technicians arrived less than five minutes after they were called. Still, it was touch-and-go.
VOLPP: I didn’t have a pulse for 14 minutes. That meant the E.M.T.s worked on me for nine minutes after they arrived, before they were able to get a pulse restarted. I had to be shocked three times. So, they were able to have me regain a pulse out in the field. I don’t remember going to dinner. I don’t remember keeling over. I get asked a lot, you know, my parents are both dead — like, people will say, “Did you see your parents? You know did you see bright flashing lights? Did you meet God?” And the answer to all that is “No,” at least, as far as I remember.
Kevin was taken to the University of Cincinnati hospital, where doctors discovered he had a blocked coronary artery, which means his cardiac arrest was likely the result of a heart attack. The event stunned Kevin. He was only 54 years old, well below the average age of men who experience their first heart attack, which is 65. Not only was he in amazing shape, he was also taking aspirin and a statin, a drug that reduces cholesterol, proactively. Kevin’s dad had suffered a heart attack, too.
VOLPP: Interestingly enough, of the 400,000 or so sudden cardiac arrests each year in the United States, a very large percentage of them happened without any warning, where people don’t have any symptoms. They just all of a sudden keel over.
All of this goes to show just how hard it can still be to prevent something like this. And, that a person’s baseline health matters too. Read more or listen at Freakonomics MD.