They appeared to be old friends gathered for a reunion.
Though some of them knew each other previously, they came together Jan. 16 to say thanks after a truly lifesaving event — the quick response when Mark Sienkiewicz suffered a heart attack.
He survived thanks to a quick response by his fellow parishioners and staff at an event at St. Simon the the Apostle Parish in south St. Louis County and the availability of an automated external defibrillator (AED), a lightweight, portable device that delivers an electric shock through the chest to the heart. The shock potentially allows a normal rhythm to resume following sudden cardiac arrest, when the heart malfunctions and stops beating unexpectedly. If not treated within minutes, it quickly leads to death.
Sienkiewicz and his wife, Sue, attended a Knights of Columbus Christmas program at St. Simon in December where their grandson performed along with other children from the parish preschool. A band from St. Mary’s High School was playing when Mark Sienkiewicz had the heart attack. Meghan Harrison, Kristen Larson, Denise Buehler and Michele Snyder jumped into action, with Buehler racing up the stairs to get the AED.
“If it (the AED) wasn’t here, he definitely wouldn’t be here. The doctor told us that,” Sue Sienkiewicz said.
Larson, mother of one of the preschool performers, said Sienkiewicz was in the perfect place at the perfect time. “Just don’t do it again,” she told him with a laugh.
“If it (the AED) wasn’t here, he definitely wouldn’t be here. The doctor told us that,”
All four helpers told Mark Sienkiewicz, who doesn’t remember anything until he woke up at St. Anthony’s Medical Center, that they were glad they were there for the team effort and that the parish had the AED. He told them he’s recovered, in a rehab program and has lost weight. “It changed my life,” he said.
Mark and Sue Sienkiewicz are enthusiastic supporters of their parish and its school. For example, they’ve helped with a Knights of Columbus fundraiser for a scholarship fund for St. Simon eighth-graders attending Catholic high schools and scholarships for the parish’s Kenrick-Glennon seminarians.
Never did they think though that a cause at the parish — an effort to obtain the AEDs — would end up saving his life.
Snyder first was certified on AED some 25 years ago, and this was the first time she used the skill.
“You never know how you’re going to react in that situation,” Snyder said. ”But it was like a well-oiled machine. I was prepping him. Kristen Larson was giving him chest impressions. Meghan Harrison was giving him mouth-to-mouth. I told Denise the AED was upstairs in the foyer and she ran up the stairs and grabbed it. Every time I needed something … like, I just remember opening my hand and somebody handed me the scissors from the AED that cut his shirt open.”
Buehler gave Snyder the two AED pads, and Snyder put them on. “The machine was amazing. It told us everything to do, step by step. I said ‘clear,’ and we shocked him, and brought him back,” Snyder recalled. “He took a big gasp of air. I mean, he came back to life.”
The fire station is across the street, but the work that was done in the 3-4 minutes it took for the ambulance crew to arrive was critical. The paramedics transported him to St. Anthony’s Medical Center.
“I was a small part in this,” the preschool director said. “Every single person I was working with did an important part. It was truly the work of many hands that made this happen.”
All of the people involved had some training but hadn’t used the AED equipment previously. The clarity of the promptings from the AED made it much easier. “It told us exactly what to do. It was so comforting having that,” Snyder said.
The message she spreads is that “you never think that it can happen to you, but it can. Some thought that we’re a preschool and don’t need it. Others pointed out that we have the fire department across the street.” But the people who were advocates for it, including her, knew that it doesn’t matter. “It just takes minutes,” Snyder said. “The response time can never be quick enough.”
St. Simon has four AEDs on its campus. Two were donated by St. Anthony’s and two were purchased by the parish. Everyone on the staff of the preschool is certified in CPR, first aid and use of the AED, Snyder said. Other staff at the parish also are trained.
Dr. Christopher Allen, a cardiologist and director of the cath lab at St. Anthony’s, said that without a defibrillator and early CPR, the chance of survival from cardiac arrest is less than 10 percent. However, early defibrillation and bystander CPR increases survival by 40 percent.
He attends Incarnate Word Church in Chesterfield, which has AEDs. Incidents of heart failure, he noted, are known to be higher at faith-based or recreation-based locations. Of the cost of the devices, he said, “We’re talking about something that’s nearly 100 percent fatal if untreated, so I’m not sure a dollar amount can replace that life.”
The AEDs are extremely easy to use, he said, and rescuers and institutions are protected from litigation by Good Samaritan laws.