From sudden death to a second chance at life thanks to three gym partners, an AED and First Aid training

By Kirsten Long, Advisor, Communications 

One night in February 2022, John Uhren sat down at the dinner table with his wife and 11-month-old son and declared he was going back to the gym. Prior to that, he had been working out at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a young, fit, and active man, attending fitness classes was something he did long before the pandemic. Little did he know that when he returned to the gym for a class, his heart would stop.

John woke up on February 26th, feeling fine and ready to head back to the gym. When he arrived, the fitness instructor, Rob Nardecchia, assigned him to the last open station, which was in the corner by the entrance.  As the group began to stretch for the warmup portion of the class, John fell to the floor. He landed at the feet of his classmate, Andrew Gurrisi, immediately jumped in to help. Growing up in a coastal city in Australia, Andrew began taking first aid courses when he was a teen and continued taking them as part of his work up until he moved to Canada a few years ago. Thanks to his training he knew how to respond when he saw John collapse “I’ve been doing CPR training since I was 16 years old, in my mind it was very methodical,” Andrew recalled.

Andrew immediately put John in the recovery position; a first aid method used to position people safely while they are unconscious. He then started to assess John, talking to him, and giving him a sternum rub. Another gym member named Carla, who works as an emergency room nurse, joined Andrew and began aiding in the assessment.

An AED mounted on a wallInstructor Rob, who had gone to the gym office to grab something when John fell to the ground, was immediately notified by another gym member that someone had collapsed. He ran over to join Andrew and Carla. “I immediately asked for someone to call 911 (local emergency services),” Rob said. The trio quickly realized that John was not breathing and the pulse in his wrist was getting weaker. Rob sprang from his position and ran to get the Automated External Defibrillator (AED) that was kept in the gym.
Just three months prior to John’s cardiac arrest, Rob had completed the annual first aid and CPR training course. “We were having fun and joking in the training class, then three months later I’m running to grab an AED,” Rob said.  

After carefully rolling John onto his back, Andrew started compressions. “I tried to put as much of my weight on him, trying to make sure I was doing it right,” Andrew explained. “I’ll never forget the feeling of his chest under my palms.” 

At this point, John had turned blue and was making gasping noises, but the team kept going. Rob returned quickly with the AED, Carla removed his shirt and placed the pads on his chest. The AED could not detect a heartbeat. On the second or third analysis, the AED finally indicated a shock should be delivered. “He’s not dying on this floor,” Rob recalled thinking to himself. “[I] never pushed a button harder than I did when it said administer shock”.

Less than 8 minutes after the 911 call, and only moments after the AED administered a shock, the fire department arrived. “It was the longest minutes of my life,” said Andrew.

John was taken to hospital under the diagnosis of “sudden death”. He was placed on ventilators with no brain activity and a grim prognosis. It wasn’t until a few days later that John shocked his medical team by waking from the coma and resuming regular motor function. Three weeks later, John and his wife celebrated their son’s first birthday. “In hindsight, it was the worst moment of my life. My son was 11- months old, he would have never known who I was,” John said.

Reflecting on the incident, John, Andrew, and Rob all shared the same sentiment; if John was to have his heart stop, it happened in the best place, at the right time. As Rob later stated, “so many things needed to line up in order for it to be a positive outcome,” including the fact that there were three capable people in the gym that day that were ready and able to take quick action.

The three also shared the importance of First Aid and how critical it is to get trained.

The owner of the gym organizes and pays for training for staff every year and hosts classes for members. While not a requirement under law, the gym had an AED installed onsite. “Best money I spent,” said the gym’s owner.

“You don’t think you need it [first aid training], until you need it, and when you do, you really need it. It’s a couple hours of your day.” said Rob.

Andrew, Rob, and Carla received a Red Cross Rescuer Award for their efforts in saving John’s life.

“I am blown away from the kindness of strangers who jumped in to help me in a life-or-death moment,” said John. “It was only through the heroic actions of the fitness instructor and my classmates that I am here today.”

The Canadian Red Cross is a leading provider of first aid and CPR programs and has been offering training to Canadians for over 80 years. Find more information on the training programs and registration here.

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