A Rainy Lake Medical Center registered nurse is among two International Falls men to receive a life-saving award after care provided to a local resident last spring.
John Decker, RN, was presented with a 2021 STEMI Award in recognition for his performance and commitment to improving heart attack systems of care.
Nathan Myers, a paramedic with the Falls Ambulance Service, also received an award.
A STEMI is the most serious type of heart attack where there is a long interruption to the blood supply. This is caused by a total blockage of the coronary artery, which can cause extensive damage to a large area of the heart.
“Our staff is trained to recognize that type of heart attack,” said Kim Hebert, director of the RLMC Emergency Department. “They are required to take ACL classes, which is advanced cardiac life support. They learn the skills needed to recognize different cardiac rhythms.”
Local training comes into play on a regular basis, but a March 14 event stood out to officials who distribute STEMI awards out of Essentia Health in Duluth.
“I’m accepting this on behalf of the whole team that was there that day,” Decker said Friday after receiving the award. “We’re all spokes in the wheel.”
Wayne Darvell was working to build a crib dock and cut ice near his Rainy Lake home Sunday, March 14. He was joined by his wife, Ruth, and neighbor, Dr. Charles Helleloid, a local retired physician.
“We’d been out there for hours,” Wayne said. “We were down to our last piece.”
It was when he took a step back from working on that final piece of ice that Wayne said he “felt something happen.”
“I didn’t have crushing pain, I just had a weird feeling in my chest,” he recalled.
The 69-year-old has a history of heart issues. When he was 46 years old, he had coronary artery bypass surgery, and also suffers from COPD triggered by chemical sensitivity from a career in product development at 3M.
Since the 1997 bypass surgery, Wayne carries Nitroglycerin tablets, which are used to treat episodes of angina, or chest pain. While he’s never really had to use them in more than two decades, whatever was going on March 14, Wayne knew to take a tablet.
Still unaware of the severity of whatever he was feeling, Wayne summoned Ruth to help him make his way to the house. Once Wayne got to the staircase connecting the ice-covered lake to their deck, he realized something was very wrong.
“I knew I was in deep trouble,” he said. “When we got in the house, I immediately told Ruth to call 911.”
As a registered nurse of 45 years, Ruth was already on the phone.
Wayne started shedding layers of winter clothing, knowing his wife would very likely need to start administering CPR. Quicker than the Darvells expected, ambulance personnel were on scene at their County Road 138 home. Within minutes of their arrival, Myers was preparing an electrocardiogram or EKG, which records the electrical signal from the heart to check for different heart conditions.
Upon reading the EKG, it didn’t take long to make a decision: Wayne would need to be airlifted from International Falls to Duluth. From the Darvells’ living room, Myers activated the helicopter.
“(Nathan) probably saved my life right at that moment when he made that decision,” Wayne said. “He saved minutes… His calmness and command of the situation calmed me even though I knew I was in trouble.”
The theme of staying calm continued once Wayne’s care was turned over the emergency department at Rainy Lake Medical Center.
“I was very struck by how well the system worked,” Wayne said. “In the ER, people were moving all around me. They were efficient and I could see that… Everything worked in concert.”
Wayne laughed at a phrase he’s used in the past that applied to what was happening to him that Sunday evening.
“When they’re ignoring you in the hospital, be happy because you’re OK. It’s when you have a lot of people around you that you’re in deep trouble,” he said. “I had a lot of people around me.”
Still, Wayne said he never lost confidence in the situation.
Wayne was in and out of consciousness and even went into ventricular fibrillation– twice. Ventricular fibrillation is the most frequent cause of sudden cardiac death and requires immediate medical attention. Emergency treatment for ventricular fibrillation includes cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and shocks to the heart with a device called an automated external defibrillator (AED).
From the waiting room, Ruth and Helleloid could hear Wayne’s medical team say “clear,” and knew exactly what that meant.
“We just held hands and started praying,” Ruth said. “I was shaken inside, but I knew he was in good hands.”
Richard Mullvain, STEMI program manager and chest pain center coordinator, stressed just how good of hands Wayne was in, adding Decker went “above and beyond his professional skills.”
“John kept reassuring Wayne and kept him informed of what was going on,” Mullvain said. “He provided calming reassurance while at the same time performing heroic, advanced life-saving care. He exemplifies what we would want an emergency department nurse to do with a heart attack patient.”
Mullvain earlier this month discussed Wayne’s story with colleagues during an annual STEMI workshop, attended virtually by RLMC staff. Mullvain spoke highly of all the players involved in saving Wayne’s life – from Ruth not hesitating to call 911, to Myer’s quick actions to active the helicopter from the field to Decker and the RLMC team in the emergency department. Mullvain said that is how a successful system works.
“Everyone did their job,” he said. “During a heart attack, time is muscle. We’re not only fighting to save the patient’s life; we’re fighting to save their quality of life.”
The system worked so well that in less than 72 hours, Wayne was discharged from the hospital and on his way home with two stents, but no damage to his heart.
“In my journey, I touched so many parts of the system that had to work perfectly for me to survive,” Wayne said. “It’s not going to happen to everybody, but that fact that it happened for me means it can happen again.”
“This case really highlights what excellent care is,” he said. “Rainy Lake Medical Center really provides critical care despite being in a very remote location with sometimes limited resources… The team provided a key handoff that needs to happen with heart attack patients.”
Just over six months after the STEMI, Wayne and Ruth are enjoying life on Rainy Lake, noting there’s nowhere they’d rather be.
“It’s remarkable where I am now,” Wayne said. “I have no heart damage from this incident because of everything (everyone) did… I’m just in awe.”
The couple credited the continued education local healthcare workers and first responders receive about STEMIs and other health risks, and encouraged the community to support efforts to constantly improve local services whenever they can.
“All the things they’re doing with this STEMI project… this is a success of that project,” Ruth said of her husband’s experience. “It’s amazing. More people are going to be impacted with the positivity of this program.”
Wayne said he often hears a reoccurring comment of how lucky he is.
“I have a hard time with the word luck,” he said. “The lucky part of this story is that I was able to be the recipient of all the work that John, Nathan, Richard and everyone else involved put in.”
Other RLMC staff who cared for Wayne on March 14 include: Sarah Arch, RN; Connie Pesche, RN and Jeremy Gutormson, RN.