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‘Be thankful for each day’

By Carol Stender

July 8 2018 started like any other day for Richard and Diane Armstrong of Fergus Falls. The couple woke up at 5:50 a.m., made their bed and Richard went downstairs to start his morning routine.

Diane had planned to make coffee. But she doesn’t remember what happened next. She fell to the floor. Richard heard a thud and called out to Diane. When she didn’t answer, he went to see what happened.

He saw her on the floor, unresponsive. He checked her breathing and pulse and then went into action. He started CPR.

Richard knew what to do. He has served 20 years as a volunteer fireman for the Fergus Falls Fire Department where he, like other firefighters, received intensive training in CPR and First Aid.

This wasn’t the first time he’s used his training. In the 1980s, he used the skills when attending a VFW convention in Duluth. The couple was at a restaurant, Starving Marvin, when a daughter called out for help. Her father was choking. Richard performed the Heimlich maneuver and was able to dislodge the food that was stuck in the man’s airway before emergency crews arrived.

And, when their daughter was three years old, he performed a similar maneuver when she was choking on a hot dog.

But this time, he was administering CPR to his wife. It was an anxious time, he said.

Richard and Diane Armstrong at their home in Fergus Falls. Photo by Carol Stender

He grabbed his phone and dialed 911, he said. Thinking he hit the wrong number, he tried again and this time got the dispatcher. He quickly recited the address with instructions to come in the side door, and went back to giving CPR to Diane.

It didn’t take long for the ambulance to arrive, he said. As they took over, one EMT said she was breathing and the next minute he said she wasn’t. They took out the defibrillator paddles and shocked her three times before her heart began beating once more.

Diane regained consciousness during the ambulance ride to Lake Region Healthcare. She didn’t know what was happening.

Richard, meanwhile, quickly called the couple’s daughter, Amanda, then changed out of his pajamas into street clothes before heading to the hospital himself.

Emergency room doctors began asking questions. Did she know what time it was? Diane thought it was 8 p.m., but, actually, it was 6:15 a.m., she said.

They asked her who the president was and the date. She knew those responses.

There was lab work and an Electrocardiogram, then doctors told her she had suffered a heart attack.

She had one more ambulance that day as she was taken to Sanford hospital in Fargo.

“They thought I had clogged arteries,” she said.

“But the arteries were clear. Doctors then said I had experienced a cardiac arrest.

What’s the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest?

There are symptoms with a heart attack, Richard said. You might experience chest pains or other symptoms, but with a cardiac arrest, there is no sign it will happen. The heart just stops.

The next day doctors surgically placed a pacemaker and defibrillator in Diane.

She had a small amount of damage from the cardiac arrest, but, during a doctor’s visit, two months later, they said heart functions were back to normal. She was fine.

The devices monitor Diane 24 hours a day, 7 days week. If she has a mishap, an alarm will go off, Diane said. She had to check in with the doctor every few months during that first year, but now sees a physician yearly. She has a unit in her bedroom which provides an extensive readout every three months. Diane makes no calls herself. The unit sends the information.

During her five-day hospital stay, the couple’s daughter, Amanda, stayed in her room. Diane’s siblings also came to the hospital to check with their sister and her progress.

Amanda moved in with her parents and Diane recuperated. She couldn’t lift anything over 10 pounds and her arm was in a sling following the surgery. Amanda helped her mother shower, prepared meals and cleaned the couple’s six-bedroom home. The large home was nice when the couple operated an adult foster home, she said.

As Diane’s strength slowly returned, she took on more the daily duties herself, but she didn’t drive.

“I was almost scared that something would happen as I would be driving,” she said.

Her cardiologist encouraged her to start.

“She said, ‘You need to go on with your life,’” Diane said.

She heeded the advice and began driving. Now she found joy in getting the groceries and shopping.

Three years after the incident, on July 8 2021, the couple moved into a twin home. It’s smaller than their six-bedroom house, and its perfect for their needs.

Diane now takes three pills a day and must drink decaffeinated coffee. But she’s been able to resume her normal routine.

As she looks back on that day, Diane is thankful her husband was home. Richard loves to golf and, if the cardiac arrest had happened a couple hours later, he could’ve been on the golf course.

Doctors have said Richard’s actions that day are a big reason why Diane survived. Statistics show that only 7 to 8 percent survive a cardiac arrest.

Following their experience, the couple has some advice. Richard encourages people to, any chance they get, to take first aid and CPR training.

“It’s not going to help you, but it will help others,” he said.

And Diane?

“Just be thankful for each day.”

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