Some mornings when Ken Stayton showed up at the gym, the place looked like a ghost town. Not a soul in sight.

That would have been the case on February 26, too, if not for Kirsten Platto and Katie Rittersdorf.

The two 24-year-olds, strangers to each other at the time, both dragged themselves out of bed that Monday to get their workouts in. They both “almost didn’t go to the gym that morning,” Platto said.

Ken, 71, and his wife, Lynette, will be forever grateful the young women pushed themselves to go.

“It could have been a morning where he never came back,” Lynette said.

No response

Riding a stationary bicycle near the back of the Rockford, Michigan, fitness center that morning, Rittersdorf heard a loud thud behind her. Assuming someone had inadvertently kicked the wall, she happened to glance at Platto as she turned to see the source of the noise.

The two women locked eyes.

“When I saw her face, I was like, ‘Yeah, no—something’s wrong,’” Rittersdorf said.

Ken had collapsed, slamming into the wall on the way down.

Running over to where he lay, Platto and Rittersdorf hoped he’d simply tripped on his way to the paper towel dispenser. But when they spoke to him and he didn’t respond, they knew it was bad.

“His face started turning purple, and that’s when we both thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we need to call 911,’” Platto said. Ken’s heart had malfunctioned—he was in cardiac arrest.

Terrified, Rittersdorf grabbed her phone and made the call.

With her phone set on speaker, she followed the emergency dispatcher’s instructions and began performing chest compressions—something for which she had no training.

The dispatcher then asked whether the fitness center had an AED. Because Rittersdorf knew where to find the defibrillation device, she ran to get it while Platto continued chest compressions.

“We didn’t quite know what we were doing,” Platto said. “We were shaking. But we needed to do something—we couldn’t just stand there.”

Returning with the AED, Rittersdorf turned it on and opened it up. The pair were removing Ken’s shirt so they could deliver a shock to his heart when two police officers arrived to help.

Platto and Rittersdorf had been performing CPR for five minutes when the police took over. Though the officers immediately began defibrillation, their attempts weren’t successful.

From ambiguity to stability

Soon paramedics arrived from two jurisdictions, one bringing a chest compression machine called a LUCAS device.

Using the LUCAS machine, rescuers could stop doing manual chest compressions while continuing their attempts to shock Ken back to life. It took nearly an hour of rescue efforts before paramedics felt ready to load Ken into an ambulance. Even on the way to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, they feared he wouldn’t pull through.

At home in Rockford, Lynette learned of her husband’s collapse and had a neighbor drive her to the hospital. It was afternoon before she could see Ken in the intensive care unit. The doctors put him into a medically induced coma for several days to give his body time to recover.

Even in the ICU, Ken’s future was uncertain, Lynette said. She prepared herself for the possibility he would need a lengthy stay in a rehab facility if he survived.

Thankfully, Ken responded well to treatment, and a week after his cardiac arrest he was out of ICU and walking the halls at the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.

Before he could go home, however, he would need to have a defibrillator surgically implanted.

Anyone who has already had a cardiac arrest is at higher risk for having another one, according to Al Albano, MD, a cardiac electrophysiologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group. Studies show the risk of recurrent cardiac arrest to be 10 to 15 percent, he said.

The implantable cardioverter-defibrillator offers protection by immediately shocking patients back to life if another life-threatening heart rhythm develops.

The “time (from collapse) to shock is one of the most important predictors in survival,” said Dr. Albano, who implanted Ken’s device. Every minute that passes without CPR or shock treatment results in a 5 to 10 percent decrease in patient survival, he said.

That’s what makes Platto and Rittersdorf’s response at the gym so critical.

“It highlights the importance of recognizing the symptoms of a cardiac arrest, knowing CPR and understanding how to use a defibrillator,” Dr. Albano said.

The law requiring CPR and AED instruction in Michigan schools is a big step forward, he added.

Perfect storm

So what led Ken’s heart to stop beating? Though no one knew it at the time, Ken had developed scar tissue throughout his heart. When scar tissue is present, electricity can get entangled in the scar, spiraling around and sparking an extra electrical signal.

“If the timing of that electrical spark is just perfect—if it interacts with the heart electrical cycle in just the right way,” Dr. Albano said, “it can put the heart into an electrical tailspin known as ventricular fibrillation,” an arrhythmia that leads to cardiac arrest.

A cardiac MRI revealed the scarring, but it couldn’t detect the cause of the scars. Did Ken have active inflammation from a virus or autoimmune illness, which would need treatment, or were his scars the signs of a long-resolved problem?

Only one test can detect active inflammation in the heart, a cardiac PET scan.

Ken’s cardiac PET scan showed no active inflammation, meaning that his scarring is likely “collateral damage from a prior viral infection of the heart,” Dr. Albano said. Since there’s no way to fix the scarring, the best treatment is to protect him from a recurrence of cardiac arrest with the implanted defibrillator.

In suspense

Back in Rockford, Platto and Rittersdorf wondered what happened to the man they helped. All they could learn from fitness center staff was that his name was Ken and he’d made it to the hospital. Beyond that, they were left with questions—for days after the event.

“Katie and I were texting back and forth every day: ‘Did you hear anything?’ ‘Did you hear anything?’” said Platto, who became friends with Rittersdorf after sharing this experience with her.

Then one day, about 10 days after Ken’s collapse, the women both received a call from the Rockford police commissioner. Lynette had asked him to let them know that Ken was coming home.

“I just remember sitting on the floor because I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s OK, he’s going to be OK,’” Platto said. “Obviously he has a long road ahead of him, but we felt so relieved because we finally had an answer.”

The Staytons met Platto and Rittersdorf in April, when the Rockford City Council honored the women for their lifesaving efforts. Talking afterwards, the four filled each other in on parts of the story they hadn’t heard before. It was an emotional evening for everyone.

“Hugs and tears on both sides,” said Ken, a retired auto industry sales rep who’s rebuilding his strength so he can get back to the yard work he enjoys.

The young women look back on the day of Ken’s collapse with a sense of awe. Rittersdorf drove to the gym that morning even though she’d never worked out on a Monday before and wasn’t in the mood to go. Platto got up and went despite feeling uncharacteristically sluggish.

“I could have been there by myself,” Ken said, hearing their stories.

“Right, but there’s a reason we went to the gym that day,” Platto told him. “You know, we were pushed to go there because we had to help you.”

The four of them are thrilled things worked out the way they did. Knowing that only 8 percent of people in Ken’s situation survive, they encourage others to jump in and help others in similar circumstances.

“You don’t have to be a professional to step in and step up,” Rittersdorf said.