Saturday, October 5 was a day to remember for Shepparton's O'Connor family — but not in the way they planned. A trip to Melbourne for lunch with old family friends ended with Paul O'Connor's heart stopping four times while medical staff battled to keep him alive.
The food was prepared and the car was packed as the O'Connor family left their south Shepparton home just before 10am on Saturday.
They headed off down the Goulburn Valley Hwy on the familiar route to Melbourne.
Paul O'Connor, a 63-year-old government department forest fire emergency management co-ordinator, was driving; his wife, Beryl, a long-time midwife at Goulburn Valley Health sat next to him; and their 28-year-old daughter, Jacinta, was in a rear passenger seat.
It was going to be wonderful day— a lovely lunch with old basketball friends, one of four get-togethers the group held every year.
At the River Rd junction, just before the trotting track, Beryl noticed Paul veering the car towards the emergency lane.
“I thought, what's he forgotten now?" she said.
Then her husband's head slumped on her shoulder and suddenly their world tipped from relaxed to terrifying in an instant.
Beryl grabbed the wheel, steered the car onto the verge and pulled on the handbrake. She then raced around the car to the driver's side, while Jacinta jumped out to allow her mother to pull Paul's seat back.
“I was really scared inside,” Beryl said.
"I splashed his face with water and squeezed his shoulder muscle — but there was no response. I was saying 'stay with me'. He looked dead — his face was white.”
Beryl said her mind was racing.
She remembered thinking — how was she going to tell their Melbourne-based son Raynor, Jacinta's twin, that his father was dead?
Meanwhile, Jacinta was phoning 000.
Beryl was about to drag her husband out of the car and start CPR on the roadside when he returned to the world.
“I came out of it quite softly — I was aware of Beryl splashing water on my face,” Paul said.
Jacinta said watching her father collapse seemed unreal.
“I couldn't believe it at first. Your brain sees it, but it doesn't compute,” she said.
An ambulance crew assessed him on the roadside before taking him to GV Health.
After being triaged, Paul waited with his family and ambulance staff in a corridor to be admitted into a resuscitation unit. He was drinking a cup of tea when he felt the same creeping nausea and his heart stopped a second time.
“I said, 'I'm going again — take my cup',” he said.
This time, the return was tougher.
“Coming back out was a fight,” Paul said.
"It felt like I was trying to fight my way out of a mosh pit. My legs and arms were going and I was thinking, 'I wanna be out of here, I want to be back up on stage'.”
“That put me up the queue a bit.”
While in the resuscitation unit, his heart stopped a third time.
“It was like déjà vu. I know where I'm going here,” Paul said.
Beryl said at that point, a code blue alert was called for a cardiac team.
“Then the decision was made to go to Melbourne,” Beryl said.
Between 10.10am and 11.25am Paul's heart had stopped three times. But the drama wasn't over. His heart stopped again during the flight to Melbourne.
“I was enjoying the scenery and chatting to the ambulance officer,” he said. "We were coming in to Essendon airfield — then I got the déjà vu feeling again and I went unconscious.”
Paul's blackouts lasted up to 25 seconds at a time.
After admission to Melbourne Private Hospital, the decision was made to insert a pacemaker immediately to regulate Paul's heart rhythm.
Beryl described her husband's heart problem as electrical and nothing to do with lifestyle or diet.
She said it was known as "ventricular standstill", in which the heart rhythm is affected by abnormal electrical impulses.
“It's like a faulty light switch,” Beryl said.
Paul said he led a healthy lifestyle.
“I don't smoke, I'm a healthy weight, and I swim regularly,” he said.
Paul said doctors told him his level of fitness had helped him survive his four heart stoppages.
He advised anyone his age to get regular health checks.
Two years ago, Paul had a warning sign of heart problems when he suddenly collapsed at work and then had a small pencil-thin heart monitor inserted under the skin of his chest.
Paul said two weeks before his heart failures, he considered getting the monitor removed because it was uncomfortable when he exercised. Now he's glad he didn't because the monitor provided valuable information to doctors who treated him.
The O'Connors expressed deep gratitude to the Shepparton ambulance crews and medical staff at GV Health who came to their aid.
“They were all brilliant, their level of care and expertise was outstanding — from the orderlies to the cardiologist,” Paul said.
"They were fantastic — professional and calm.”
Despite her medical training, Beryl still gets emotional when she remembers the events of Saturday, October 5.
“I'm a nurse, I knew what to do,” she said. "But emotionally I feel wrung out and drained. But I've got a husband alive, his problem has been found and it's been treated.”
Days later, Beryl realises how close she came to losing her husband of 31 years.
“You see in the movies medics doing CPR with a loved one nearby and you never think you're going to be in that situation,” she said.
"When they come out of it you think there's going to be something very profound to say — but there isn't. He knows we love him, we know he loves us — what else matters?”
What to do
Dr Jennifer Coller, visiting cardiologist at Goulburn Valley Health, said 'ventricular standstill' is an uncommon heart condition that can lead to sudden faints or blackouts, or a sudden collapse with loss of consciousness.
Dr Coller said the condition occurs when the heart stops pumping despite some electrical signals still being produced in the upper chambers (atria). She said it is a potentially fatal condition and important to recognise early. It can be treated by the insertion of a cardiac pacemaker.
Dr Coller said problems with the electrical conduction system of the heart become more common with age but anyone experiencing sudden unexpected faints should seek urgent medical advice.
“If you observe someone who is not conscious and not breathing normally, call 000 and ask for an ambulance, push hard and fast on the centre of the chest and send someone to find an AED (automated external defibrillator),” Dr Coller said.
AEDs are available in many public spaces and no specialist training is required; the device will tell you exactly what to do.