Mark Wangrin and his wife, Barbara, put on their athletic gear and drove to their Austin, Texas, fitness center for an early morning Sunday workout. Mark hopped on treadmill No. 1. Barbara climbed onto a nearby rower. Then she switched to weights.
While running, Mark glanced at the digital board in the front of the room that tracked people’s workout statistics. His heart rate was registering at 240 beats per minute. He thought it was a technology glitch and kept going.
Soon after, he collapsed.
“We need a doctor or nurse at treadmill one!” a coach yelled.
Barbara was the first to reach Mark. He lay on the ground beside the equipment. His face had turned Smurf blue.
A certified physical therapy assistant who’s taken annual CPR training for the last dozen years, Barbara knew exactly what to do.
“The tape started playing in my mind when I saw Mark on the floor,” Barbara said. “The knowledge kicked right in.”
She asked, “Mark, Mark. Are you OK?” Getting no response, she tilted his head back, checked his airway and gave her husband several rescue breaths. A doctor jumped off a nearby treadmill and began chest compressions, working with her in unison. The coach grabbed the center’s automated external defibrillator, or AED. Then, they shocked Mark’s heart with the AED as they waited for emergency responders.
When paramedics arrived, they inserted a tube into Mark’s trachea to keep his airway open. Gym coaches comforted Barbara as she stayed by Mark’s side.
In the ER, doctors determined Mark had experienced a sudden cardiac arrest.
The trauma caused his organs to begin shutting down. They put him in a medically induced coma and packed him in ice to cool his body and help save his failing organs.
When Barbara arrived in the ER, staff called hospital clergy. Mark was raised Catholic and Barbara Jewish. They raised their two children Jewish. The clergy was Muslim.
“He was very comforting, and I appreciated him so much,” Barbara said. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ll pray to any god out there listening to me right now.'”
Doctors told Barbara that Mark’s prognosis was dire. If he survived, he would likely have significant mental and physical complications.
Mark remained in a coma in the ICU. He recalls strange dreams: He was thirsty but couldn’t get a drink; riding in a car that wouldn’t make turns.
“The theme of them all was, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do,” he said.
Barbara sat by his bedside. She massaged his feet, washed his hair and played his favorite music – songs by Bruce Springsteen.
“You’ve got to be an advocate for your loved one,” she said.
Mark collapsed in April 2021. He turned 61 while in the coma. That day, Barbara played Springsteen’s “Surprise Surprise” on repeat. “Well surprise, surprise, come on open your eyes,” the lyrics go. Their daughter, Makala, who was 25 at the time, brought a birthday tiara for her dad.
They decorated Mark’s room with pictures of friends and family, including Mark’s son, Ben, then 21, who was away at school at the time. The family gave Mark a stuffed dachshund, or “Faux Bo,” a doll that’s identical to Bo, the family dog. “It was important for me to tell Mark’s story for him while he wasn’t able to,” Barbara said.
On his ninth day in the hospital, Mark woke up. His lips were chapped and he asked for ice cubes and oral mouth swabs soaked in water. “It was like heaven,” he said.
Two days later, doctors put in his chest an implantable cardioverter defibrillator. The device will deliver shocks to his heart if it detects an irregular heartbeat. Two days after that, Mark left the hospital.
“I thought about my kids, how they were too young to lose their dad,” Barbara said. “But Mark was in the right place at the right time with the right people.”
On the way home from the hospital, Barbara bought Mark a smartwatch – blue to match how she found him on the gym floor – to track his heart rate.
Mark started rehab, walking on a treadmill and around the block at home. He worked hard. He was motivated to get stronger and earn the rehab center’s “Keeping the Beat Alive” T-shirt. Mark ultimately earned two T-shirts.
“He’s very goal-oriented and competitive,” Barbara said.
At home, Mark cuddled Bo in bed and gained back some of the weight he’d lost in the hospital. Then, less than two months after collapsing, he returned to his government communications job, working from home.
On the first anniversary of his cardiac arrest, he returned to the gym – and to treadmill No. 1.
“I went through the whole workout with no problem,” Mark said. “I’m not going to live in fear of this happening again. The only thing I can control is how I approach it and what I can do to help prevent it.”
Now, nearly two years after his cardiac arrest, Mark eats healthier, practices mindfulness and regularly follows up with his doctor. He’s on blood pressure medication and while he can’t let his heart rate climb too high, he regularly rides his exercise bike.
As a recovering alcoholic who’s 14 years sober, he’s also applied lessons learned from recovery to his journey – asking for serenity and turning his will over to a higher power.
“I laugh more, mostly at myself,” Mark added. “I look for silver linings, bright sides and humor in most everything.”
He’s taken a CPR and AED class in the last year, and says everyone should. He’s learned that rescue breaths aren’t always needed. Hands-only CPR can be just as effective.
“I’m alive only because other people knew what to do,” Mark said.
Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.
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