Wayne Schneider estimates that since 1986 he has taught 100,000 people how to perform CPR. Little did he know that one day he would be the one whose life depended on that knowledge.
Schneider, a paramedic for Hennepin Emergency Medical Services, was on a recent call tending to a man who had stopped breathing when he himself went into cardiac arrest. His partner, along with several police officers, firefighters and other paramedics, administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation to Schneider for 68 minutes. The average person responds to CPR in 12 minutes, according to an analysis done last year at the University of Washington.
“This isn’t about me,” Schneider insisted. “This is about the people who helped me. This is about people not giving up.”
Schneider said the whole experience has been a serious reminder of what paramedics call “the chain of survival.” After a heart attack, the first link in the chain is bystander CPR. Schneider, who typically works night shifts, teaches civilian CPR classes during the day through his company, First Response Training. Lucky for Schneider, the bystander on that fateful night knew CPR extremely well.
Schneider and his partner Greg Booth were on duty Dec. 17 when they got the call. A man had gone into respiratory arrest at a motel in Richfield, but as they drove to the scene, Schneider started to feel strange.
“I knew something was going on, but I didn’t really know what it was,” said Schneider, 56. “I know the symptoms of heart attack inside and out, and I wasn’t having those. So I wasn’t that concerned.”
They revived the patient and brought him out to the ambulance. That’s when Booth noticed that Schneider was missing. He mentioned the absence to a police officer, who said he saw Schneider walking toward the front of the ambulance and figured he was going to get the usual paperwork.
Booth wasn’t buying it. They’d been a team for more than two decades, responding to between 1,200 and 1,500 calls a year.
“We know how each other thinks,” Booth said. “In 22 years, I’d never seen him walk away right in the middle of something like that. I knew something had to be wrong.”
Ambulance got crowded
Schneider knew something was wrong, too, but he still didn’t know what. “I remember feeling happy that we had the guy breathing again,” he said. “I don’t remember feeling pain, but something told me that I had better go sit down.”
He climbed into the passenger seat of the ambulance cab. That’s where Booth found him, slumped over with no pulse. Booth suddenly had two critical patients on his hands.
“There was that brief moment when all I could think was: ‘What am I going to do now?’ ” he said. “I immediately made a ‘medic down’ call on the radio. And, fortunately, there were still some first responders around — three firemen and three or four policemen — so I called for their help.”
They jockeyed Schneider out of the cab and put him on a backboard. But it was too cold to have him outside, so they took him to the back of the ambulance, where they had to lift him up and over the other patient so they could start CPR.
When a second ambulance arrived, Schneider was moved to that one and paramedics Shane Stevens and Jordan Wardell took over his care. He was brought to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), receiving CPR the entire time until cardiologists finally were able to stabilize his heartbeat. Although Schneider delivers patients to all the hospitals in the county, he works out of HCMC, and landing there bolstered his spirits.
“When I came to and realized that I was in HCMC, I truly had the sense that I was going to be OK,” he said.
The next day, doctors told him that the reason he didn’t recognize any of the typical signs of a heart attack is that he didn’t have a heart attack. “This was brought on by stress,” he said.
Stress-related health problems aren’t unusual for paramedics, said Robert Ball, operations supervisor for Hennepin Emergency Medical Services. One minute they’re sitting around talking about the Twins’ pitching prospects, the next they’re racing up a flight of stairs carrying heavy equipment to a life-or-death situation.
“There are sedentary periods where they’re not moving, and then suddenly they’re thrown into strenuous activity in a high-pressure situation,” he said. “Studies have shown that increased pulse rates and blood pressure can last for up to 24 hours after that.”
The chain of survival
As Schneider told his story, he repeatedly tried to turn the conversation away from himself to “the team of people who helped. … I feel uncomfortable with this being all about me.”
Ironically for a man who wants to avoid the spotlight, this isn’t the first time he’s been in it — literally. When actor Warren Bowles had a heart attack onstage last year at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, it was Schneider who gave him CPR.
“We didn’t have a choice” of moving him offstage, he said. He tried to ignore the fact that people were watching, “except every now and then I’d look up and see them. And when I said, ‘We have a pulse,’ they applauded.”
In addition to CPR, Schneider’s company offers classes in first aid and organizes mock emergency drills for hospitals. The number of people taking CPR classes varies, he said. Some weeks there are two classes, other weeks there might be two a day.
“We want to make sure that people are taught well,” he said. “It increases critical [patients’] survival rates.”
But talking about his own case also has its upside: It gives him a chance to remind people about the importance of CPR training.
“Everybody that was associated with this call understood CPR,” he said. “If any of them had given up, I would not be here.”