Died…Been there, done that

December 4, 2012 by Deena
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Written by Scott Tedrick
It was the evening of July 14 when Tom McGarthwaite sat down at his  
computer to check his email and quite unexpectedly died.

Tom and his wife Cheryl had just returned from a trip to Minnetonka  

where they were helping their youngest daughter, Lisa, move into a new  

apartment. After dinner, the two made the trek back to Granite Falls,  

and it was between 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. when it happened.

“Tom had suffered, I didn’t know it at the time, Sudden Cardiac Arrest  

(SCA),” said Cheryl. “He tipped over onto the book case next to the  

computer and stopped breathing. Luckily both of us were downstairs and  

I was about five feet away. I thought he was faking it initially. I  

said: Oh, come on, you’re not that tired. Wake up. But he truly wasn’t  

totally alive.”

Cheryl says the words, “not totally alive” with an awkward sort of  
chuckle that thinly veils the cauldron of emotion that still boils up  

at the thought of the evening––and it seems amazing that she’s able to  

speak of it at all. Then again, the near-widow proved to be a rock  

throughout the ordeal, taking it upon herself to administer CPR and  

later holding it together when telling doctors it was time to ‘pull  

the plug.’ 
Realizing Tom wasn’t faking, Cheryl recalled wheeling her husband back  
in the chair, bringing  him to the floor and beginning chest  

compressions while simultaneously fishing her cell phone out of her  

pocket to dial 9-11.

“First, the police were there in less than two minutes with an AED  
(Automated External Defibrillator), which they used to begin shocking  

him. The ambulance arrived in less than three minutes––and that’s the  

miracle of living in a good little town, with a good police and  

ambulance. But thank heavens the police had an AED in that car because  

the faster he started breathing and his heart beating again, the  

better the outcome you’re going to get.”

After it was determined that there wasn’t a significant problem with  
his heart, Tom’s body temperature was reduced to induce hypothermia,  

thereby slowing the system down so the brain is kept from swelling and  

oxygen deprivation. A helicopter dispatched from Redwood Falls then  

airlifted him to St. Cloud Hospital’s cardiac unit. 
Doctor’s told Cheryl that Tom’s chances for recovery would correlate  
with the speed in which he woke up, but after 24, 48, 72 hours and so  

on, he remained unconscious.

“His kidney’s quit working and he needed to be on a ventilator because  
he couldn’t get to breathing on his own. There was also concern of  

brain stem damage and that he wouldn’t have his autonomic system  

working,” recalled Cheryl. “So after four days they told me that he  

probably wasn’t going to recover. Maybe he could be on a ventilator,  

receive kidney dialysis and be a vegetable––if we wished to continue  

treating him.”

Left with a no-win situation Cheryl did what she thought Tom would want.
“I said, well, you know, he’s  not a man that ever went to the doctor.  

He wouldn’t want that, let’s not do this any more.”

Moved to palliative care, Tom was taken off life support and  

administered drugs meant to stave off any potential suffering. It was  

to be only a matter of time, the doctors told Cheryl. He wouldn’t be  

able to breathe  on his own.

Only he did.
“I said I thought you said he would die right away, he wouldn’t be  
able to breathe,” said Cheryl. “And they said, well we’re no longer  

doing kidney dialysis and his kidney’s aren’t functioning. THAT will  

kill him.”

But it didn’t.
At some level his kidney’s continued to function, and the hours, which  
turned to days, rolled on.

“Eight days out, our daughter thought Tom was squeezing his hand. But  
we couldn’t get him to do it and show the doctors,” recalled Cheryl.  

“Nine days out, Tom seemed to be looking at us, but his eyes didn’t  

look like they were focused and there was all sorts of this gunky  

stuff in them. So I told the doctor that and he said: well, let me go  

look. And he shined a light in and said his pupils are non reactive,  

he’s blind.”

Dejected, Cheryl once again tempered any hopes and sought the comfort  
of 16 friends from the “6:00 a.m. Swimmers” (a senior swimming group  

of the Kilowatt Community Center) who had traveled to be present with  

the McGarthwaite family as a surprise. Together they made their way to  

the hospital lounge and prayed.

“Now this is really how it happened. I went back to the room, because  
I had asked one of the girls to take pictures because I knew this was  

the end of mine and Tom’s time together––the doctors told me he  

probably couldn’t live another day––but my son said, Mom, I can’t do  

this anymore. Dad talked.” 
“I said, John!”
“He said, no, the nurse asked: could I reposition this pillow on your  

head? And dad hollered at her, no!”

“And then he started to wake up. And under his breath, really soft, he  

went, CChherryylll… And that was it. I went to go get the doctors  

and nurses and I said we’re not doing this anymore. And then it just  

got better and better and better.”

With a laugh and deep exhale, Cheryl completes the tale, then turns to  
her side and casts her gaze on her husband.

“To me,” he says with a subtle smirk. “I just woke up. It was like  

nine days of nothing.”

Sitting across the room Tom looks pretty good for a guy who is  
supposed to be deceased, or at the very least a vegetable. As it is,  

he has gained back almost the entirety of his former function––his  

balance is a little off and he still lacks energy and endurance, but  

he is expected to continue to recover significantly for a period of  

six months to a year.

“I had one nurse tell me that she had never seen anything like this in  
her 22 years,” Cheryl said. “It was miracle, after miracle, after  

miracle.”

After 19 days, Tom continued to surprise doctors when it was  
determined he was well enough to go home. He would be able to receive  

all therapies needed through the Granite Falls Hospital and its Home  

Healthcare services.

Since the ordeal Tom has changed his eating habits, walks 3.5 miles  
per day and now comes equipped with a pace-maker––as it was determined  

that the cause of the initial attack was an irregular heartbeat. He is  

also considering getting back into driver’s education, which he taught  

prior to the event. But in the meantime he has become a popular  

speaker with the Sudden Cardiac Arrest support groups and forums–– 

where he has been joined by St. Cloud Electrophysiologist Dr. Keith  

Lurie in campaigning medical practitioners to allot more time for  

patients who have undergone hypothermia to wake up taking them off  

life support.

Today, the McGarthwaites say their relationship is stronger than  
ever, even if Cheryl “pulled the plug on me,” as McGarthwaite likes to  

joke.

“He wants to get a shirt made that says: Died, been there done that,”  
said Cheryl of Tom, who seems to be finding the most humor in the  

whole affair.

With a pair of new twin grandchildren, the McGarthwaites have plenty  
to live for and are looking forward to getting the most out of their  

new lease on life together.

“I’m much deeper in my faith and the belief that we may not know why  
and when things happen but we still need to be in the here and now and  

struggle to stay there,” said Cheryl. “I truly treasure not being a  

widow and having Tom in my life.”
Tom and Cheryl McGarthwaite are happy to be together after Tom nearly  
succumbed to Sudden Cardiac Arrest.

A word from Ambulance Director Gene Hughes

Editor’s note: Without the quick action of the Granite Falls police and ambulance, Tom McGarthwaite likely would not have had an outcome as positive as the end result. Asked to provide a little insight into the importance of having a police officers equipped with Automated External Defibrillators, Ambulance Director Gene Hughes said this:

This was the first event in twelve years where police officers used their defibrillator to successfully shock a patient back to life. The dedication and quick thinking these officers exhibited is rare. All the officers, of the city and county, are often the first on scene and help the ambulance crew provide care. This time they really made the difference by effectively using the equipment they carry to save a life. “I feel these officers are real heroes”. They used their skills and judgment to use their defibrillator in the minute before we arrived to do the right thing. No one could have done better. After the event I found that the patches they used were their only patches. They can’t or haven’t budgeted for extra patches and batteries for the defibrillators they carry at this time. I hope the plan for the future includes extra funds for these heroes among us. We need to keep their equipment ready at all times. These people really make a difference in our communities. The community of Granite Falls is extremely fortunate to have police officers trained to provide first aid, CPR and defibrillation, but without these supplies they are unable to provide the best care possible.  

Tom and Cheryl McGarthwaite

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