Would-be passers-by key to doctor’s healthy heart

Noreen Hegarty |

October the ninth is now a big day for Dr Tom Watson. It’s not his birthday but it is the first anniversary of the rest of his life.

Just over a year ago, shortly after 6.30pm, the anaesthetist and Waikato DHB Chief Medical Officer had a cardiac arrest while driving along a four-lane highway.

He can’t remember that incident but now knows that his car crossed the four lanes of the Te Rapa straight and slammed into a building. He also knows that, had it not been for the generosity of spirit shown by some young men travelling in another vehicle, he’d have died at the scene.

“Four young men – not the type I would have naturally assumed would stop to help – pulled over and dragged me from my car. They put me in the recovery position but a woman who was in the vicinity could see I was in need of CPR and instructed the young men to put me on my back and start the process of bringing my heart back to life.

“I absolutely know that the biggest factor in my survival is what happened at the hands of those young men - and subsequently others - well before I eventually made it to hospital.”

Coincidence is an uncanny thing. The woman who instructed the young men to start CPR worked at a nearby supermarket and knew there was an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) there. Police officers who happened to be working near the crash scene retrieved and used the AED and took over CPR before St John ambulance officers arrived to shock the then 62 year-old Tom back to life.

Key to Tom’s survival were the bystanders. Without them Tom reckons he’d have died or, “worse still, become a vegetable”.

Only one in 10 people survives an out of hospital cardiac arrest. The vast majority of those lucky few can attribute their survival to bystanders who are willing to start the resuscitation process.

Monday October 16 is Restart a Heart Day (RAHD) in New Zealand and Australia.

The RAHD campaign was started by the European Resuscitation Council in 2013 and was established to stem the death toll from sudden cardiac arrest around the world – more than three million people every year.

It was developed in response to a declaration by the European Parliament (2012), which acknowledged the survival of many apparently healthy victims of sudden cardiac arrest depends on CPR being administered by bystanders in conjunction with early defibrillation.

Intervention within three to four minutes may increase the chance of survival to more than 50 per cent.

The declaration called for initiatives including programmes to introduce AEDs in public places and the training of people in the community, changes in legislation to encourage CPR and defibrillation by non-medical people and the set-up of a European cardiac arrest awareness week.

The Council of Ambulance Authorities (CAA) is committed to supporting RAHD across Australia and New Zealand through member services in each country which, in New Zealand, include St John and Wellington Free Ambulance, Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ) and the Heart Foundation.

Dr Tom Watson is adamant those young men, the woman who knew what to do and the subsequent efforts of Police and St John have enabled him to resume the fitness regime he was so proud of. His cardiac arrest happened after a six kilometre run around Hamilton’s Minogue Park while building up to compete at the World Master’s Games in Auckland in February this year.

After his roadside resuscitation and the advanced life support provided by the attending ambulance officers, he was transported by St John to Waikato Hospital that evening and remained in the Intensive Care Unit in a coma for 24 hours.

An angiogram showed he had two blockages in an artery so he was advised that, if he wanted to carry on living the healthy lifestyle he had enjoyed, he’d need heart surgery.

“At the time I believed I was one of the fittest people around hospital so I struggled with the notion of having to have heart surgery,” Tom says.

“It was only after considerable discussion that I agreed to it. The whole incident is a bit surreal to me but I’m very glad to still be around and was delighted to be able to, in February, successfully compete in the World Masters Games as an ocean swimmer.

“I’m happy to be able to tell the story of my own experience to encourage as many people as possible to familiarise themselves with how to do CPR and where to find and use AEDs. You never know when you’ll be the bystander who can restart someone’s heart.”

Tom has met those young men who he credits with starting the process of saving his life and admits there were some tears shed.

“I invited the young men to meet my partner and I for a celebratory drink on the anniversary of my restarted life. I thoroughly enjoyed it as I intend to enjoy several more years of healthy and happy living.”



Noreen Hegarty

St John Media & Public Relations Manager

T 09 526 0528 I M 027 809 2058

E noreen.hegarty@stjohn.org.nz

Visit www.restartaheart.co.nz for details about activities in your area

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