Widowmaker victim lives to tell the tale

Pictured, from left, are Jim Combs, Jim Gummersheimer, Vicki Koerber and Connie Morgan. Morgan, Combs and Koerber were responsible for the flawless chain of survival that brought Gummersheimer back from a “widowmaker” heart attack in 2016. (Sean McGowan photo)

“I thought I was doing all the right stuff. I was exercising, and my wife is all about cooking all the right things.”

These words may leave a bitter taste in the mouth of Jim Gummersheimer, who in 2016 fell prey to a vicious heart attack. 

But thanks to the life-saving efforts of three well-trained individuals, and some clockwork timing, the Columbia man can boast he survived the aptly named “widowmaker.” 

A widowmaker is caused by total blockage in a critical blood vessel.

“It’s ironic because I know CPR and how to use an AED from my years at Ameren as a safety coordinator. I never imagined it would be used on me,” Gummersheimer, 65, recounted.

In many ways, the stars had aligned for Gummersheimer, who at any other time would have opted for his daily five-mile walk near the farm. He had chosen to work out at the Monroe County YMCA on that cold December morning instead.

Also at the Y that day were Jim Combs, Vicki Koerber and Connie Morgan. 

Combs worked in maintenance at the Y at the time.  

“I saw Jim (Gummersheimer) that morning and I knew his grandson had just been born a couple of days ago,” explained Koerber, who works part-time as an EMT with Monroe County EMS. “I wanted to go up and congratulate him, but he was in the middle of an intense workout so I decided I would check in with him on the way out.”

Koerber opted to start her workout and left Gummersheimer to his routine on the elliptical. Morgan, who had experience in health care as a nurse, was close by at the time Gummersheimer began to struggle.

“Connie saw him slumping on the elliptical, and she grabbed him to lay him down between the machines. That right there was the start of a good thing,” Koerber boasted.

Morgan’s next challenge was to get Koerber’s attention.

“That morning I was kind of observant,” Morgan said. “I saw Vicki walking the track above. I was yelling at John to get Vicki. John was lifting weights at the time, and Vicki told me later, ‘Oh, he can’t hear anything.’

“And I was back and forth between, ‘Well, I have to stay with my patient,’ and trying to get someone’s attention. So finally, I ran over to John and tapped him, and said, ‘Where’s Vicki?’”

Eventually, Koerber heard Morgan’s cries for help and came running.

“I was down on the mat doing floor exercises. And when I popped up, that’s when I heard Connie yelling for help,” Koerber said. “I just remember standing up and yelling for an (automated external defibrillator). 

“And I saw (Monroe County YMCA greeter Eileen Chamberlain) and I was yelling that he had no pulse and age 62. Eileen went and locked the place down, and then we started working. Connie was at Jim’s head, and I started pumping (doing chest compressions).”

Meanwhile, Combs was down in the laundry room unaware of the situation in the gym. 

“I was down in the laundry room and someone asked where the AED is,” he said. “And they didn’t tell me someone was down, they just asked where it was and told me to go and grab it. So I got it and that’s when they told me someone’s down.

“So I thought, ‘Oh, I should probably hurry.’ I got upstairs and pulled his shirt off and started hooking him up to the machine. And once it made the sound that it was charged, I gave him a shock.

“Jim jumped from the voltage and his arm touched my leg. So I thought, ‘Wow, I must be standing too close.’”

After the shock, Koerber recalled Gummersheimer experiencing agonal respiration, which involves an abnormal and irregular pattern of breathing. Combs then set him up with oxygen for a sustainable blood flow.

“Once he started coming around, I felt for his pulse,” Koerber said. “I started getting a weak pulse and coughing, and before we rolled him over (on his left side into a recovery position), he looked up and said, ‘What the hell happened?’

“He actually answered some questions for me. I asked him what his name and age was and he recalled those two things perfectly. Which that in itself was a miracle.”

EMS had arrived at that point to load Gummersheimer into the ambulance. On their way out the door, the vestibule had filled up with people waiting for the lockdown to end.

“I’ll never forget this. Everybody in the vestibule started clapping when they saw Jim. And he gave them all a ‘thumbs up.’ That still gets me every time,” Koerber said through tears.

Gummersheimer told the Republic-Times his only memory of the incident was waking up in the hospital bed with his wife next to him and the doctor telling him he needed heart surgery.

“My doctor explained at the hospital that only six out of 100 people make it through something like that,” he said, noting if he had been out on his usual walk near the farm that no one would have been there to help.

Gummersheimer continues his trends of healthy eating and exercise, and is even back to donating blood. His last checkup following his heart surgery came back perfect in July.

Gummersheimer had his story featured in an American Heart Association video aired during the AHA’s 2018 St. Louis Heart Ball. In the video, Koerber recounts the events leading up to and immediately following Gummersheimer’s heart attack.

A suspenseful introduction is cued with the sound of a running treadmill and dramatic music. A man can be heard outside of the screen coughing, and as the treadmill continues, he gasps, then collapses.

Gummersheimer also shares his thoughts about CPR and what he recalls of the incident. At the end of Gummersheimer’s interview, Koerber, who he refers to as his “angel,” comes out to give him a hug.

“I felt privileged to be able to do that,” he said of the opportunity to have his story shared in that format. “Hopefully other people will be inspired to learn CPR.” 

The ball raised a total of $1,364,500, and AHA senior heart ball director Cecilia M. Holechek said in an email that Gummersheimer’s story helped raise $300,000 of that. 

“This life-saving story has, and will continue to have, a lasting impact on our community. I was moved to tears when I saw it,” Holechek said of the video.

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