There were hugs and handshakes all around at MVP Athletic Club in Rockford, Michigan, recently when three gym members reunited with the staff who saved their lives.

Their stories could have ended much differently.

Each man is alive today thanks to CPR and the quick use of automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, which restore a regular heart rhythm after a sudden heart attack or cardiac arrest.

‘Life looks a lot different’

Wally Wyma almost skipped the gym for a Kent Trail bike ride on June 9, 2015, because it was a beautiful evening.

He’s glad he didn’t choose the bike.

The 53-year-old had been running laps for his MVP Boot Camp class when he collapsed. The outcome would have been much different had his heart attack happened out in the middle of nowhere.

Megan McCall was first on the scene when Wyma hit the floor.

A first-grade teacher by day and fitness instructor by night, McCall had just attended a CPR safety refresher course that morning. The scenario she had reenacted now mirrored reality: She trained to be the first responder on the scene of an emergency.

The training paid off.

Thanks to her quick action, Wyma gained full consciousness within four minutes, and within 10 minutes an ambulance had him headed to the hospital.

When he arrived at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital emergency department, everyone expected the worst. Hospital staff even pulled aside his son to prepare him for the bad news.

After initial tests, however, the doctors were amazed at the lack of damage to his heart.

Further testing revealed the need for a triple bypass.

“God … protected me that night,” Wyma said. “Being with trained people who took action immediately not only saved my life, it saved my quality of life. Life looks a lot different after that.”

‘You don’t want to go on this diet’

On April 1, 2015, Jeff Walker didn’t feel up to par. He blamed it on a cold. He and his wife went to their kick-boxing class at MVP Athletic Club anyway, but he sat out one song.

The 61-year-old retiree remembers chatting after class. And he remembers waking up in an ambulance.

What he doesn’t remember is his fitness instructor, Jana Belisle—also a critical care nurse—doing heart compressions and using a defibrillator to save his life after he collapsed on the floor.

Quick action protected him from visible heart damage. After surgery and rehab, he’s feeling better than he has for a long time.

“I’m convinced that if this happened anyplace except MVP, the outcome would have been much different,” Walker said.

Friends and acquaintances have commented on his 20-pound weight loss—the aftermath of double bypass surgery and subsequent cardiac rehab.

“You don’t want to go on this diet,” he tells them.

‘Friends for life’

Al Williams says he has “friends for life” in MVP operations manager Adam Brown and director Shandy Longcore.

It’s an intentional play on words.

One day in March, Williams had been alternating between jogging and walking on MVP’s track when he went down due to ventricular fibrillation.

“I had nothing before that gave me a clue,” the 68-year-old said. “Then I got dizzy like I’ve never been dizzy before. It just hit out of nowhere.”

Brown came upon the scene first, followed quickly by Longcore, who grabbed an AED and helped with CPR.

Seconds matter

Spectrum Health cardiologist Thomas Boyden, MD, who treated Jeff Walker after his heart attack, wishes everyone would undergo CPR training. Chest compressions not only save lives, they also prevent brain damage that can occur in as little as one minute.

No one should hesitate to use an AED in an emergency, Dr. Boyden said, even if they’ve never been trained. Each minute that defibrillation is delayed, it reduces the chance of survival by about 10 percent.

“You can’t go wrong,” Dr. Boyden said. “The machine does everything except press the button. Just put the pads on the victim’s chest and do what the machine tells you to do.”

After seeing the AED’s lifesaving power in action, MVP director Shandy Longcore agrees.

“I encourage all businesses, churches and schools to add AED equipment,” she said. “It buys time.”

“Just like in sports, you visualize what’s going to happen and then do it,” Longcore said.

She remains surprised, however, at the extent of her soreness after performing CPR in a real-life scenario.     

“I was sore for five days,” Longcore said. “No joke.”

Williams is forever grateful. Just two weeks after his collapse, and subsequent quadruple bypass surgery, he visited MVP Athletic Club to thank his rescuers.

These days, you can find him on hour-long walks on the very same track where he went down.

Plumbing repairs

After surviving their heart attacks, Wyma, Walker and Williams all chose the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center for coronary artery bypass surgery.

Stephane Leung, MD, the cardiothoracic surgeon who operated on Williams, likens surgery for blocked arteries to a plumber working around a bad pipe.

“We take a combination of arteries and veins and redirect the blood flow beyond the blockage,” he said.

Recovery depends on several factors, including the patient’s condition before surgery.

This rings true for the trio that suffered heart attacks at MVP. Their exercise regimens meant they were all in good shape, and the quick actions of MVP staff resulted in minimal heart muscle damage in each case.

“In the post-operative period, it definitely helps to have someone who is physically fit,” Dr. Leung said. “It’s all about physical therapy and being a very motivated patient.”

After several weeks of cardiac rehabilitation therapy, all three survivors were back to their regular workouts.

“I can do at least as much as I used to, and in some areas I can do more,” Walker said. “I think the reason we all came out so well is because we always exercised.”