ANDOVER — One minute, Neal McGovern was pedaling close to 150 rotations-per-minute on a stationary bike in what he says was his 35th spin class of the year. The next minute, he was falling to the floor, his heart not beating.
In April, McGovern, 74, experienced sudden cardiac arrest during a spin class at the Andover-North Andover YMCA. According to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation, nine out of 10 cardiac arrest victims die. When patients receive immediate care, however, four out of 10 victims survive.
"I was clinically dead," McGovern said. "The key to survival is to get help immediately, which is usually not possible. You need to be in the right place at the right time, and lucky for me, the right place was the Andover-North Andover YMCA."
Last week, McGovern shared his story with Jackie Salvesen's health class at Andover High School. The students were learning about CPR and automated external defibrillators, both of which saved McGovern's life. His testimonial, he said, serves as an example of how the help of a stranger can save a life.
Helen Devlin, a cardiac nurse at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, was taking the class on the morning of Monday, April 25, alongside McGovern when he fell off his bike. Although McGovern doesn't remember much of what happened, he's been told that Devlin was the driving force behind the lifesaving efforts.
"Because there were people there who knew what they were doing, I'm here telling my story, as it was told to me," McGovern said. "Since I was out almost the entire time, it almost feels like I'm talking about someone else."
Devlin, spin instructor Bonnie Spurr and staff from the YMCA "sprung into action," McGovern said, as they began CPR compressions and located a defibrillator. McGovern was revived and only remembers feeling the cool, outdoor air as he was wheeled out of the YMCA on a stretcher and into an ambulance.
One of the first things McGovern said he remembers is one of the Andover firefighters who responded to the 911 call calling his name. "I hear you're a former Marine," the fireman said as McGovern was opening his eyes. "Me, too. Semper Fi."
"Then I remember being at Lawrence General, sitting up, and asking if I can get something to eat," McGovern said. "The body literally switches a flip when you go into cardiac arrest, and when I came out, I didn't feel any ill effects."
AEDs save lives
McGovern did have to undergo surgery, though, and had a stent placed in his heart. He also now has a cardiac defibrillator in his chest "the size of a box of Tic-Tacs," he said.
"It's my own little safety net if this ever happens again and I'm alone," he said placing a hand over his chest where the device was put. "They say it's like the kick of a mule. It monitors my heart and if it senses that I'm going into cardiac arrest, it'll give me a real kick."
Although Devlin wasn't able to join McGovern to explain the importance of fast action when it comes to cardiac arrest, she said there are two things students should remember about how she helped save McGovern's life.
"What saved Neal's life was the AED, and everyone should be aware of what they are and always ask if one is available in a situation like this one," Devlin said. "Immediate CPR with fast, deep compressions and minimal interruptions will keep oxygenated blood flow to the brain and prevent anoxia. These are the two most important things that saved Neal."
Salvesen said at Andover High School there are four AED's throughout the school. In her class, students are tasked with taking selfies next to each defibrillator so that rather than being told where they are, they find them firsthand.
"You are all protected by the Good Samaritan Law, and this situation is one of acting immediately, of helping immediately," McGovern told Salvesen's students on Friday. "You have to go to the aid of someone in need, and I'm a perfect example of why."
A Vietnam veteran, McGovern knows that it's not always easy to spring into action when something goes wrong.
"In the fog of war, you don't always know what to do," McGovern said. "Marines have a saying when they respect someone for the job they do. 'I want that person in my foxhole.' Well, I thank God that (these people) were in my foxhole that morning."