Lance Eskelund was officially dead for 55 minutes. Unconscious, with an unresponsive heart and a nonexistent pulse, Eskelund lay on the table, a team of doctors trying to save his life. During this time, he did not see any lights, hear any angelic voices or trumpets' songs, but the experience did make a believer out of him.
"I may not have had an out-of-body experience while I was lying there, but what the team of doctors and nurses did every step along the way was a string of miracles," said Eskelund. "If my story doesn't make you a believer in Rhode Island Hospital, I don't know what would."
It all began while working at Roger Williams Middle School for his wife, Jane's, non-profit, Rebuilding Together Providence. Eskelund, a retiree, often donated his time to the cause.
"I was just going about my day and suddenly felt an immense pressure, like a pair of large hands inside my throat squeezing, an incredible choking sensation," said Eskelund. "I called my wife and said, 'Honey, I'm having an event.' She was there within a minute."
Jane, a licensed practical nurse with 35 years of clinical and crisis experience, instantly knew not only that something was seriously wrong with her husband, but that each passing second would mean the difference between life and death.
"I knew we didn't have time. My one thought was to get him help as fast as we could," said Jane, who knew that Rhode Island Hospital was only a mile away. "You should always call 9-1-1, but I could tell that every single little moment was going to count for him, so I drove him to the hospital myself."
Having called 9-1-1 on the way, the medical team was ready for the Eskelunds to arrive. By the time the car pulled up to the entrance, Eskelund was drenched in sweat, teetering on the edge of consciousness. The emergency team, headed by George McKendall, MD, director of the coronary care unit, and Frank Sellke, MD, chief of the division of cardiothoracic surgery, rushed him to the cardiac catherization laboratory where they began trying to unclog his heart. They could not work fast enough. His blood pressure dropped and Eskelund was in full arrest.
Technicians began CPR, and after cracking four ribs, they massaged his heart and performed compressions for the next hour. The blockage was in the main artery. Eskelund had no pulse and could not breathe on his own, but the team of doctors pressed on, paddling his chest multiple times-they lost count after fifteen-all while attempting to clear the blockage using stents and angioplasty. Finally, Eskelund stabilized.
"Fifty-five minutes is a long time to try to save someone," said Jane. "I asked Dr. McKendall, 'why did you keep working on him?' He said simply that giving up on Lance was not an option."
With two stents in his heart and a breathing tube in his throat, Eskelund was transferred to the intensive cardiac care unit. After being there for only a few nights, he was displaying similar symptoms as he had when he first arrested. News from the lab: a clot had formed between the two stents in his heart. Another arrest was imminent. Eskelund required immediate surgery.
"We were nervous. Everyone was worried he wouldn't be strong enough after what he had been through," said Jane. "But obviously, they didn't know Lance."
Sellke performed a successful triple bypass surgery and after only four days, Eskelund was released from the hospital. He enrolled in a 13-week cardiac rehab program from which he recently graduated with flying colors.
"I feel great," said Eskelund. "I am exercising every day, and yet I know that if my body tells me I'm overdoing it, rather than press on like some sort of warrior as I would before, you have to give yourself a little break. The real strength comes from learning your limits. I have a renewed sense of purpose. I plan on being here for a long time."
Eskelund credits a lot of people with his recovery: his doctors, McKendall and Sellke, who Eskelund says are the best a patient could ask for; George, the CPR technician who massaged his heart back to life; his many nurses, particularly Joe, who stayed with Jane and the rest of the family, acting as an advocate and a source of comfort, and Annie, who sat side by side with Jane during Eskelund's emergency bypass surgery. There are many others.
"I am grateful beyond words to the whole team," said Eskelund. "In a place like Rhode Island Hospital, there are so many miracles in the course of a day. Mine was just one of them, but each and every member of the staff was part and parcel of my still being here."
There is one other person who doctors and Eskelund say was instrumental in saving his life-his chauffeur in moments of near catastrophe, his recovery coach, his high school sweetheart-his wife, Jane. Some have called her a hero for making the correct decision at a critical moment, but for Eskelund, her role in his life is bigger than that.
"Jane is more than just my hero," said Eskelund. "She is my heart."