A Survivor's Mission

After suffering a sudden cardiac arrest, an Ames man works to get defibrillators in schools.

Erik Munn realizes how lucky he is to be alive. And he has launched a local fundraiser to improve the odds of others in Ames being as lucky. 

On Feb. 16, 2008, he was playing his regular 6:15 a.m. game of basketball with his buddies at the city gym. With no personal history of heart disease, the tall, skinny, fit 49-year-old sat down to rest "and I just collapsed."

His next memory was coming to in the emergency room with worried friends and family all around. 

It turns out he had suffered a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). SCA is not a classic heart attack and it's not a stroke. It's a momentary electrical malfunction that makes the heart stop. According to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, it's the leading cause of death in the country.

It was critical that Munn's heart be shocked back into action immediately. Friends phoned for emergency help while another friend administered CPR. But what Munn really needed was a defibrillator to restart his heart.

Statistically speaking, Munn, the father of two young children, had a 95 percent chance of dying that day. The national survival rate for a SCA is 5 percent, highly dependent on whether a defibrillator is nearby.

Fortunately, the city gym is close to Mary Greeley Medical Center, and paramedics were able to restart Munn's heart within six or seven minutes.

It was a small miracle that his heart received the critical shock so quickly. Brain death and permanent death can start to occur in just four to six minutes, according to the American Heart Association. CPR can double or triple a cardiac arrest victim's chances of survival. But with SCA, few attempts at resuscitation, even with a defibrillator, succeed after ten minutes.

"Every time I read in the paper about a 40- something dying, I wonder if it was a sudden cardiac arrest," says Munn. "And I wonder if that person could have been saved if the proper equipment had been there. I was lucky." Munn, who is president of Munn Lumber in Ames, has no lasting effects from his incident. He even got clearance to play basketball with his friends again as soon as he felt like it.

So Munn has made it his goal to see a defibrillator-known in the medical community as an Automated External Defibrillator (AED)- available in every school in Ames.

"I'm not a fund-raising kind of person," Munn says, apologetically. But he's passionate about the cause. Defibrillators are useful in schools, which are often filled with groups of people gathered for classes or various events. And it's important to remember that adults are not the only victims of SCA.

Munn's goal is to raise $17,000, enough to get a defibrillator in the high school, middle school and the Ames elementary schools. Since July 2009, Munn has raised about half that amount, and Ames High and the Ames Middle School now have defibrillators in public areas.

"We need these in our schools and other central locations," says Dr. Jonathan Burns, a board-certified emergency medicine physician at Mary Greeley Medical Center who treated Munn, and who is an advocate for more defibrillators in public places. "It's very important to have them out and available. You're taking away time if you have to locate them first."

"A student can experience SCA with no prior symptoms while in school or playing sports," says Munn. "An adult can experience SCA while exercising or just walking out of a grocery store."

"This is a really noble effort," says Burns. "Erik is going to save lives with this."

What is a Sudden Cardiac Arrest?

"I hadn't even heard about it until I had one," says Erik Munn.

SCA is a major health problem that has received much less publicity than the betterknown heart attack, according to the American Heart Association.

With SCA, the victim may or may not have a history of heart problems. (Munn's father had died from a heart attack, but Munn himself had just undergone heart testing and had a clean bill of health, other than some slightly elevated cholesterol levels.) It's nearly always unexpected.

The most common cause of SCA is an electrical malfunction in the heart that makes it quiver and unable to pump blood.

A heart attack, in comparison, has to do with the plumbing of the heart-blockage or buildup that restricts blood flow through the heart muscle. A stroke is when the blood supply to the brain is restricted. But SCA kills more people than either heart attacks or strokes, according to the SCA Association. SCA-related deaths number almost
1,000 a day in the U.S.

How to Give

If you're interested in contributing to Munn's efforts to get defibrillators in all Ames schools, you can write a check to the Ames School AED Fund, P.O. Box 1094, Ankeny, Iowa 50021. You can also make online donations at www.aedaccessforall.org.