Dayle Wood figures she was dead for at least three minutes before a fast-thinking athletic trainer—and a well-placed AED machine—brought her back to life.

It was a Monday afternoon in September 2013.

Wood, then a freshman volleyball player at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was scrimmaging with her team.

She stepped off the court to sub out.

“And from there I just collapsed,” she said. “No oxygen, no heartbeat, no nothing.”

Her teammates didn’t know what was happening, but they could tell it wasn’t good. One of them ran to the training room adjacent to the gym and found Kevin Parker, an athletic trainer who has been at Aquinas College for half his 20-year career.

She told him something was wrong with Wood.

“And I could tell by the look on her face that this was something significant,” Parker recalled.

Parker ran to the court and saw that Wood wasn’t responsive. He called out for a colleague to bring the AED, which hung on a wall about 30 feet away.

An AED, or automated external defibrillator, is a portable, computerized device with pads that can deliver an electric shock to reset the heart so it can start beating normally again.

Keep Your AED Up to Date

A clearly labeled AED should be easily accessible in all public spaces where large numbers of people gather: schools, churches, airports, casinos, shopping centers and so on. If someone has a sudden cardiac arrest, an AED may be the only thing that can save them.

But it’s not enough to have an AED hanging on the wall. You also need to maintain it. Assign someone in the organization to keep track of expiration dates and:

  • Keep the batteries fresh. The battery is the AED’s only power source. Batteries typically last two to four years.
  • Keep the electrode pads current. They contain a gel that helps the electric current flow through the skin, and over time the gel can dry out. Most pads will last two to three years.

“The only reason she’s alive is because we had the AED and had it that close,” Parker said.

After administering the shock, Parker still had to do a round or two of chest compressions before Wood began to breathe on her own.

“It was almost like you see on TV, when they gasp,” he said, “and then—she’s back.”

As soon as he saw her, he could tell that Wood had suffered a cardiac arrest.

“When it’s a young person like that, it’s an arrhythmia and their heart just stops,” he said. “One minute they’re talking to you, the next minute—boom, on the floor.”

Parker, who is required by his profession to be CPR and AED certified, had never before had to use the machine or perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation. But his training kicked in and he instinctively carried out the athletic program’s emergency action plan.

No athletic trainer was scheduled to be in the building that afternoon. Parker was assigned to the men’s soccer team, and he just happened to be there catching up on paperwork.

“I’m just happy that I was,” he said. “Right place, right time.”

‘Electrical storm of the heart’

Paramedics arrived soon after Parker resuscitated Wood. They took her to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, where she came under the care of Andre Gauri, MD, a cardiologist and electrophysiologist who serves as section chief of electrophysiology at the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.

Thanks to the data recorded by the AED, doctors confirmed Wood had indeed suffered a sudden cardiac arrest—what Dr. Gauri calls “an electrical storm of the heart.”

In Wood’s case, a dangerous heart rhythm called ventricular fibrillation triggered the incident.

To give her brain time to heal from the trauma, doctors put Wood in a medically induced coma. Two days later they brought her out of the coma and performed a battery of tests—EKG, ultrasound, cardiac MRI and more.

All of them showed a perfectly healthy heart.

“None of the tests were abnormal,” Dr. Gauri said. “Her genetic testing came back normal, everything came back normal. …We don’t have a good answer for why this happened.”

To guard against the possibility of another cardiac arrest, Dr. Gauri implanted a defibrillator below Wood’s collarbone. An implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, or ICD, monitors the heart for abnormal rhythms. If it detects a problem, it can deliver either a mild, pacemaker-type pulse or a strong, resuscitating shock.

The device has already saved her life four times, all in one week.

It was the week of Wood’s volleyball conference tournament, in November 2014. After having been red-shirted the year before because of her cardiac arrest, Wood, a hitter, was back on the court and feeling good.

Then, twice in four days, the device sent a lifesaving shock that knocked her to the gym floor. Both times the hair on her arms stood on end and tears streamed down her face.

“It’s kind of like touching an electric fence on steroids,” she said. “It was brutal.”

Because the Spectrum Health Cardiac Device Clinic monitors her device remotely, Dr. Gauri could tell that in addition to these two defibrillating jolts, the pacemaker function had also kicked in twice that week.

He performed a new round of tests, but the results were again normal. Still, something was clearly amiss.

Dr. Gauri referred Wood to a congenital heart arrhythmia expert.

Wood underwent a procedure to have portions of her right ventricle ablated. An ablation destroys small areas of heart tissue that may be causing abnormal rhythms.

In the 18 months since this procedure, Wood, now 21, hasn’t experienced further heart trouble. But the cause of her problems still puzzles her doctors.

“They still call me a freak,” she said with a grin.

Be ready

If you met Wood today, you’d be struck by her zest for life. She has a bright smile and a passion to make the most of each new day.

She thinks often of something Dr. Gauri said as he stood by her hospital bed back in 2013: “He told me that I was one lucky kid, and that only 8 percent of people who undergo cardiac arrest outside the hospital survive.”

By sharing her story, she hopes to change that statistic by prompting more people to get CPR certified and more organizations to purchase AEDs.

Dr. Gauri has the same motivation. “Anyone’s at risk for (cardiac arrest),” he said. “The more people trained to recognize it and respond, the better.”

This is the action plan he recommends:

  • If you see someone on the ground, check for a pulse. Shake them to see whether they respond.
  • If there’s no pulse, call for help.
  • Start doing CPR. The American Heart Association now recommends hands-only CPR to the beat of the disco classic “Stayin’ Alive.”
  • If an AED is available, have someone grab it. “The AED is very user friendly,” Dr. Gauri said. “It talks to you.”

Response time is everything with cardiac arrest, Dr. Gauri said.

“Every minute that goes by is a 10 percent chance you’re going to die. So if five minutes goes by before someone starts applying CPR and an AED, you have a 50 percent chance of dying.”

That’s why he called Parker the true hero of Wood’s story.

“The reason she’s not dead is because of the trainer,” the doctor said. “He knew what to do.”

Dr. Gauri notes that cardiac arrest and heart attack are two different things. A heart attack is the result of a “plumbing problem”—blocked arteries—while a cardiac arrest is an electrical problem. A heart attack usually comes with some warning signs, but a cardiac arrest comes out of nowhere.

“All the screening in the world wouldn’t have caught this,” he said of Wood’s situation.

In fact, Wood’s mom had taken her for a heart screening after the widely publicized death of Wes Leonard in 2011. Leonard was a high school basketball star from Fennville, Michigan, who died on the court after suffering a cardiac arrest.

But then, as now, her ultrasound “was picture perfect,” Wood said.

A great kid

Today Wood is looking forward to her senior year of college, when she plans to wrap up her volleyball career and finish her degree in nursing and exercise science.

When Sept. 9 rolls around, the third anniversary of her cardiac arrest, her parents will likely mark the day as they have the last two years—with cake and a team celebration at the Aquinas gym.

“We celebrate it like a birthday and just have fun with it because it’s a miracle and it’s a blessing,” Wood said. “My team has been very nurturing and loving through the whole situation.”

Parker will be included, too, because of the bond the two now share.

“He’s an awesome guy,” she said. “I’m very thankful to have him in my life.”

Though they didn’t know each other when he saved her, they have since formed a friendship. Parker says he can imagine keeping in touch with Wood long after she leaves school. He sees a bright future for her.

“She’s a great kid. To watch how she’s handled all of this—I don’t think anyone could have handled it any better,” he said.

After everything she’s been through, Wood is simply grateful—for life, for new opportunities and for what she has learned along the way.

“Before, I was very in control of everything, or so I thought,” she said. “After this—I have a very good relationship with God—so I like to think of it as a little reality check, like, ‘Dayle, you are not in charge, I am in charge.’”

Her fierce competitiveness has also mellowed through these experiences.

“It comes along with the situation and with maturity, that life isn’t all about winning,” she said. “It’s what you learn in the process from those games and from those situations.”

Her bottom line? “I’m very, very, very thankful.”