Metro Detroit couple shares story of surviving health crisis

Man saved by wife during medical emergency

By Sarah Mayberry, M.P.H. - Producer

BRIGHTON, Mich. - They've been married for 16 years, but Greg Merritt still refers to his wife Michele Sauerbrey as "my bride." 

She's also his hero -- for helping save his life one fateful February day.

It started very innocently.

"Feb. 25, 2012, I wake up at 6:30, 7 o'clock, say to my bride, 'Hey, I think I have heart burn,'" Merritt said.

Sauerbrey is a veterinary oncologist, and her training told her something just didn't seem right, especially knowing that Merritt had a family history of heart attacks.

"I was like, 'You don't have heartburn, and you certainly don't have it in the morning when you first wake up.' And he said, 'I had a bout of heartburn yesterday too,'" Sauerbrey said.

But Merritt wasn't concerned.

"I, being the classic good male that I am, said, 'No, I don't think we need to go to the hospital now.'"

Merritt admits he had a golf club fitting he just didn't want to miss.

But Sauerbrey insisted they go to the hospital.

"I even asked him twice, 'Do you think we should take an ambulance?' and he thought that was just completely silly," said Sauerbrey.

So they started driving to the emergency room at the University of Michigan.

"I was going really fast," said Sauerbrey.  "He looked over at me and he said, 'Beautiful, I'm fine.  Slow down.  Everything is going to be fine.'"

But suddenly, it wasn't.

"He put his head back, and he was white as a ghost and he was sweating profusely.  Again having a medical background, I knew exactly what was happening, and so I knew he was going into cardiac arrest," said Sauerbrey.

Merritt's heart had suddenly stopped beating.

What happened next is a drive Merritt can't remember, and his wife will never forget.

"I just thought, 'I need to get him to the hospital as fast as I could,'" said Sauerbrey.  "I was even driving on the shoulder of the expressway, passing people on the shoulder of the expressway."

She tried to focus on her driving.

"I thought to myself, 'Michele, if you get in a car accident, no one is going to make it.'"

But as she drove, she was also begging Merritt to hang on.

"Saying to him, 'Greg, I love you.  I love you.  I'm doing the best I can to get you there as fast I can get you there.'"

It was spring break, so traffic was light.   They made it to the hospital, where the medical staff raced to help.

But Merritt's heart wasn't restarting.

"The attending clinician came up to me and said, 'You know, we've done CPR for about 20 minutes.  The likelihood of him coming back, or if he does come back, being a functional person is really low at this point, and do you want us to stop CPR?'" remembered Sauerbrey.

She asked them to keep trying.

"After about five minutes, they actually did get his heart rate back and things like that. They sent him down to the cath lab and put two stents in his heart," said Sauerbrey.

Doctors at U of M also used a high-tech hypothermia treatment to cool Merritt's body.

"There was a three-day period that I don't know what he's going to be like," said Sauerbrey.

But when Merritt woke up, "It was largely, 'What happened?' said Merritt.  "I couldn't quite believe that a 46-year-old guy that was in relative good health could have something like this happen to him."

At first, Merritt struggled with his short-term memory, but soon, he was joking with the doctors and nurses.

"I have always said Greg is the luckiest person I know," said Sauerbrey.  "Within a couple of days, he was pretty much back to normal which is truly unheard of."

There is no question that Merritt beat the odds.  According to the American Heart Association, each year, more than 350,000 cardiac arrests occur outside of a hospital in the United States.  More than 90 percent of those people do not survive.  CPR, especially if performed in the first minutes of cardiac arrest, can double or triple the chances of survival.

In spite of the good outcome, Sauerbrey has struggled with post-traumatic stress from the decisions she made that day.

"In every single thing that happened, we were very lucky," said Sauerbrey.

Her advice to others: "Absolutely, 100 percent, call 911 if there's any concern and get an ambulance," said Sauerbrey.

Merritt urges others not to brush off their own red flags.   He believes if he had acted on his unusual heartburn on Friday, the dramatic events of Saturday might have been avoided.

"It was likely signaling me to say, 'Now is the time to go,' said Merritt.  "You have these little nags of some sort of pain going on, best thing to do is go get this checked out.  Don't do what I did and say, 'Well, I'm sure it's going to be fine.'"

Merritt is now determined to pay it forward.  He's embarked on a second career to help patients play a more meaningful role in their own health care.  His website "Patient is Partner" https://www.patientispartner.com/  sums up his goal.  He is now traveling the country sharing his story and educating others about ways to help bridge the gap between health care providers and patients.  Merritt is also very passionate about cardiac rehab and says it was key to his recovery.

Merritt said he is forever grateful to the medical staff at U of M and his "bride."

"There's no way I survive.  I think that's the easiest way to describe this," said Merritt.  "Lots of men talk about their wives saving their lives for lots of other reasons.  I have one that literally has done that and metaphorically.  I couldn't be more grateful for what she did."

To learn Hands-Only CPR, click here.

To find out more about how to participate in the 2017 Metro Detroit Heart Walk on May 20, click here.

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