One's death may give others chances for life
By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- After a heart attack killed 54-year-old Robert Ray while he was swimming in North Shore Pool July 30, his Mad Dogs triathlon club began a quest to save lives.
Member Wendy Johnson is driving the plan to buy North Shore a defibrillator, used to restart hearts after cardiac arrest.
That's just the beginning, Johnson says.
"My thinking is, let's not just raise money and buy a defibrillator," she said. "Let's find a way to put defibrillators in multiple locations."
The plan fits a program called Operation Heartbeat, which the American Heart Association began in Pinellas County in 1999. Besides exercise centers, it targets airports, malls, golf courses, high-rise apartments and offices, stadiums, churches and condos.
"It might have helped Robert, or it might have helped several others," said Rose Marie Ray. She and Robert Ray were married nearly 30 years. The couple operated the Mansion House Bed and Breakfast at 105 Fifth Ave. NE. Mrs. Ray still runs it, for now.
South Pinellas swimmers, runners and cyclists constitute an overlapping, often closely knit recreational fitness community. Many of its members, especially the Mad Dogs, responded immediately after her husband's death, Mrs. Ray said.
"They were with me at the pool, at the hospital," she said. "They were with me at breakfast, lunch and dinner." Johnson said local athletes were shocked when Ray died. They readily embraced the defibrillator idea.
"I almost didn't have to call people. People started contacting me," Johnson said.
The Mad Dogs contributed $1,000 toward the North Shore defibrillator. So did the St. Petersburg Masters swim club. Individual donations have further boosted the drive. The device will cost about $3,100, Johnson said.
"We definitely want to make it an ongoing project, not a one-shot deal," Johnson said.
Among the contributors have been North Shore pool staff, whose lifeguards worked hard to revive Ray after he stopped swimming, took hold of a lane rope and collapsed in the water.
The lifeguards, many of whom are young, took Ray's death hard, said Mario Abadal, North Shore's recreation supervisor.
"They were pretty down," he said.
"Robert swam here for quite a few years. We have so many patrons who come here daily, and you know them on a first-name basis. Even as friends. That's what makes it hard."
Abadal is happy North Shore will get one of the life-saving devices.
"We were in the process of getting grant funds to try to do that, except the city had prioritized the funds available, and (first) was the city golf courses, second was Sunshine Center. We were third on the list," Abadal said.
Dr. Jack Pyhel, a cardiologist, also competes in triathlons, endurance events that consists of swimming, running and cycling sections. He's the co-chairman of the heart association's public access defibrillation committee.
"I think what the Mad Dogs are doing is wonderful," Pyhel said.
Since 1999, 81 defibrillators have been placed south of Ulmerton Road, about 95 percent with the help of the heart association, said Jennifer Costello, the group's spokeswoman. In all of Pinellas, about 230 have been placed, she said.
Sudden cardiac arrests kill about 250,000 people nationwide each year, according to heart association statistics.
Two years ago, a heart attack killed Matt Bostic after the 21-year-old had run a 50-yard, impromptu, after-work race. His company, Global Access Unlimited, raised money to buy a defibrillator for Bostic's alma mater, Boca Ciega High School.
More than 95 percent of cardiac arrest victims die before reaching the hospital. Survival is directly linked to the amount of time between the onset of sudden cardiac arrest and defibrillation. Chances of survival are reduced by 7-10 percent with every minute of delay, according to the association. Few attempts at resuscitation are successful after 10 minutes.
Pyhel said the defibrillators are relatively easy to use.
"A sixth-grader can hook it up and take 20 seconds more than a trained paramedic," he said. "It's about the size of a phone book. You open it up and it starts talking to you and you follow instructions."
Illustrations show where to place pads on the victim's chest. The machine itself analyzes the heart's rhythms, delivering shocks only when it detects irregular beats.
The heart association's public access program encourages individuals and companies to learn how to use defibrillators. For information, call 570-8809.
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