How God, powerful prayers, trained scout leaders and united boy scouts helped me to survive a sudden cardiac arrest
Jose Lepervanche, PhD
July 1st, 2007 was a typical opening day at Woodruff Scout Reservation near Blairsville, Georgia. More than 900 scouts and 100 leaders were arriving to start a summer week full of fun activities. As Scoutmaster of Troop 182 in Jacksonville, Florida, I was proud to be part of 25 scouts and 8 adults going to camp. We had spent a couple of months planning this week and the boys were excited about this trip. For the first time in my adult Scouting time, my wife Flor was coming to a summer camp. I convinced her that spiders were not going to enter our tent thanks to our mosquito net.
I am sharing this personal story based on a recollection of testimonies from my wife, sons, scouts, and other adults. As you will read in the next paragraphs, I was not able to remember any of the events that happened that day. I lost seven days of my memory but the outcome of this story has allowed me to say that I am a double-blessed Scoutmaster.
Our troop arrived to camp and we were assigned to campsite 17 at the top of a hill. In the afternoon, my wife and I decided to attend a Catholic Mass with most of our scouts. We received communion in the middle of the rain in front of a beautiful lake. We saw the clouds and the upcoming storm but I never imagined that I was going to be in the middle of another storm that would almost take my life! After mass I felt blessed to start our week and we decided to attend the Protestant service too. Troop 182 is chartered by Holy Spirit Catholic Church and our troop also has Christian non-catholic scouts. Some of the adults decided to attend this service with our scouts. At the end of this service I told the others: “I am double-blessed”. I did not realize that this comment was going to be vital to save my life!
After a great opening campfire organized by the Woodruff staff, we walked up the hill to our campsite. I told my wife that I was going to walk faster to talk to the boys in the campsite pavilion. When I arrived, I was talking to them in front of a table when suddenly… I collapsed over a plastic box that was over the table! At the first moment, they thought that I was joking. My wife approached me, saw my eyes and started to yell: “He is not acting”. Immediately my son Life Scout Alejandro Lepervanche jumped to see me and asked for help. Some of our adults lowered me to the floor and started CPR when they noticed that I had no pulse and was not breathing. I had a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).
A SCA usually causes death if not treated in minutes. For this reason, five of our scout leaders, Kevin Newman, Coleen Harris, Phyllis Saxon, Mark Tolleson, and Brian Buchanan applied CPR for 45 minutes while waiting for the ambulance. After approximately 10 minutes, the camp Emergency Medical Technician Brian Hendrick arrived with an automated external defibrillator (AED) and they applied 5 shocks to my heart. I certainly believe that their continuous action, prayers, and the double-blessing of God helped me to be alive during those critical minutes. Our Senior Patrol Leader (SPL) Life Scout Scott Fleischmann and his youth leadership scouts directed the older boys to spread out in the road with flashlights to guide the ambulance to campsite 17. Others kept the younger scouts calm.
All the scouts lead by our SPL had gathered united under one of the campsite’s tarps to calm each other and to pray. While the adults were doing CPR my wife Flor was praying loudly laying her hands over me. One of the parents commented: “She was calm all the time praying in Spanish” while another parent, Hans Guerrero, was comforting her. Another parent said: “God was there” and I believe that. According to the Heart, Blood and Lung Institute, less than 5% of people with a SCA survive and I was one of the survivors!
I was taken in a rescue unit to the Union General Hospital in Blairsville by a team lead by Lt. Steven Tanner from the Union County Emergency Medical Services (EMS). Later, due to the nature of my illness, it was decided to transfer me to the Ronnie Greene Heart Center at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, Georgia. Two of the parents took my wife and son to the hospital to wait for the outcome. At the Heart Center’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU) they applied a new technique called hypothermia. In a rare coincidence, the Newsweek magazine edition of that week had a cover and article that described a similar case to mine where the same hypothermia technique was used. This article mentioned that this technique is performed in only 225 hospitals, out of more than 5,700 in the US. By lowering my temperature, doctors increased the chance of a full recovery and protected me against brain damage after my heart stoppage.
Back in camp, adults and scouts gathered to discuss what had happened. They were counseled and given the opportunity to express their feelings. They decided to continue as a united troop with the planned week. My son Alejandro, after seen that I was alive and reacting positively to treatment, decided to go back to camp and continue with his Venture Base program. I think that his return was a good sign for the rest of the scouts who kept working on their Merit Badges and other camp requirements.
Two days after my SCA, I recovered consciousness and requested to go back to camp to be with the scouts. Some people said that I reacted too fast. Others called a miracle. I was full of tubes, needles and other gadgets and my wife told be to be quiet and reminded me: “A Scout is obedient” and I replied with the Scout sign. At the end of that week, doctors decided to do a catheter procedure and a quadruple by-pass. At the same time, our Troop 182 scouts finished their week winning not only the Honor Award, but also the Scouting Traditions Award, given to only three troops, the Ranger Award, and the Duty to God Award. They accomplished more that I was expecting. They also attended daily church services praying the Holy Rosary lead by our troop Chaplain Aide Star Scout Matthew Goller asking for my health. All these prayers and awards were very useful to accelerate my recovery. I wanted to be with them and enjoy their moment. I really was proud of all the scouts and adults that were all united as a troop and kept the Scouting spirit alive during my time at the hospital!
During the closing campfire, Eagle Scout Luther Beebe presented a caricature of me in a wooden plaque to my son Alejandro. It was a touching moment. Later, our cousin Scout Alejandro Perez-Gonzalez brought the plaque to my ICU room and my picture doing the Scout sign with him and the plaque was the first activity that I remembered of all my ordeal of the previous days. I recovered my memory at this moment! I also started to draw cartoons about doctors and nurses. After twelve days in the hospital and a new permanent implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) in my chest, our son Daniel Lepervanche, who had gone from to the hospital a day after my SCA, drove us home to Jacksonville, Florida. During those days in the ICU and the regular room, I was grateful and enthusiastic about the new opportunity that God is given me to continue in this world. I know that we are blessed by God when we use the talents that he has given to us to help others. I also believe that we are double-blessed when others love us in an unconditional way. All the love of my wife and sons Adriana, Arturo, Daniel and Alejandro, plus family, friends, messages, flowers, cards, balloons, and prayers have showed to me that being double-blessed implies a great responsibility. Now I have to understand the mission that God has given to me, and expand my lessons and love beyond those who love me. Every time I touch the ICD in my chest I thank God and I remind myself of this new responsibility.
After twenty six days I returned briefly to our troop meeting to give thanks to all of the scouts and adults who attended Summer Camp, and to the entire troop who kept me in their prayers. One of the parents, Melissa Goller, kept all the parents informed by e-mail. I used the Scoutmaster minute to tell that in the same way that captains are tested during a storm and leaders are tested in a crisis, real scouts are tested during an emergency. This is the true reason about “Be Prepared”. We have to “be prepared” to handle any emergency. I told them the importance of being reverent to God, that trained adults in CPR skills were vital to save my life, that their Emergency Preparedness skills where useful to keep them calm and to help them in making the right decisions. I was also able to attend my first public event in a Knights of Columbus dinner where they gave a plaque to my son Alejandro as Outstanding Catholic Scout (picture attached).
One week later I was able to attend our Committee Meeting where I talked about this experience and the lessons. I thanked them again and used the Scoutmaster minute to share three lessons: First, we must have faith. As Scouts we have our duty to God and He has given his promises to be healthy, happy, and wealthy if we obey Him and help others. Second, use the healing power of humor. During my days in ICU I had to laugh and cough to improve my respirations, I drew cartoons, and visited other patients in their rooms. Humor was definitely, the best medicine. Third, during hard times, surround yourself of positive people. Optimism and pessimism are contagious. Optimist people will cheer you up. This is also a way to help others. During my days at the hospital I used to walk around talking to people and also requesting Chaplains to visit other patients. I believe that chaplains, priests, family and good friends were instrumental in what they call a miracle from God. These lessons accelerated my recovery and my return to our troop and normal life.
One month after that July 1st, 2007, I went back to my Scouting ctivities. I am sure that the impact of that day will last forever in the memories of our family and friends, our Troop 182 scouts and adults, more than 900 scouts who attended Woodruff and all the people who know this story. I am a new soldier in this daily fight against heart deceases. I am supporting a crusade to duplicate the number of AEDs in Boy Scout camps and to make mandatory CPR training in all Scout leaders and older Scouts. My intention is to write, speak out and increase awareness about the importance of faith, prayers, fellowship, emergency preparedness, CPR, AED, ICD, health, exercises and goodwill to others.
I am a SCA survivor by the grace of God and I am sure that after thinking about these lessons you will feel that you are double-blessed too.
(Published by the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association and Blairsville’s North Florida News, Georgia – 2007)