A new lease on life

Following near fatal seizure, local man, doctor, stress importance of heart health

BIG RAPIDS — After nearly losing his life due to a heart attack, Big Rapids resident Joey Hirl is now known as "the miracle guy" at Spectrum Health Big Rapids Hospital.

In early July, the 48-year-old began having chest pains and asked his wife to take him to the hospital. At first, Joey was coherent and talkative. However, while on their way, he began to sweat and passed out. Carole rushed into the hospital emergency room turnaround, where coincidentally Dr. Harold Moores stood speaking on the phone.

Immediately, Moores began taking charge of the situation while nurses and other staff members brought out a gurney to rush him into the facility.

"When I saw him, he had a pulse, wasn't really responding and didn't have good color," Moores said. "While we were transferring him, we lost his pulse and he went into cardiac arrest right there in front of us. We wheeled him in, got him into the cardiac trauma room and started resuscitation and advanced life support protocols."

At the 13-minute mark during CPR, Moores issued Joey with a tissue plasminogen activator to help break down blood clots in his body. Time was critical, Moores said, because resuscitation becomes less and less probable after 10 minutes have passed.

"Since we knew what time his heart stopped and because Joey was young, I felt we had a better chance at reviving him," he said. "We gave him drugs to revive him, shocks, and 20 to 30 minutes into it, we never got a response from him. Occasionally we would get his heart into a cardiac arrest rhythm where he could be shocked, but he was flatlining for about 57 minutes. I can tell you there aren't very many one-hour survivors.

"I have to really commend the nursing staff and all the people who helped. They did a great job and everyone functioned like a well-oiled machine. I think no one gave up hope and the teamwork was incredibe. The bottom line is you thank God for being there when people need help. The key was being in the right place at the right time."

Joey cannot express his appreciation for everyone who worked longer than usual to keep his heart going, even when hope seemed lost.

"Dr. Moores and the emergency room staff are rock stars," he added. "I've been treated so well, with the utmost respect and I've been well-informed. They didn't give up on me. How do you thank someone that saved your life?"

After stabilizing him in Big Rapids, Joey was transferred to the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids, where he stayed for 18 days on life support in a medically induced coma. Staff put in four stents and performed a heart ablation, the procedure to correct his heart arrhythmia or irregular heartbeats.

Now, he is a cardiac rehabilitation patient on the mend. He exercises three times a week at the hospital's cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation center and learns how to make strategic lifestyle changes to ensure healthier living, fewer medical problems and enjoy a potentially longer life.

"They build me up in my body, my heart and my mind and make me believe I can keep going," he said.

One way the Hirls have improved their health is to be extremely aware of what they eat.

"We would eat out all the time because it was easier," Carole said. "We're eating a lot of the ground chicken, turkey burgers and fish and it's pretty good. We also read labels and cut the sodium. With vegetables it's either fresh or frozen and we use a lot of fresh herbs and olive oil to flavor our food."

A change of diet has proven positive for Joey, even if it means spending more money and taking more time to prepare a healthier meal.

"Society teaches us that you can get two pizzas and that feeds our family for $10," he said. "Eating healthy is very expensive, but it's essential. I really believe eating different makes a difference. You might hate veggie burgers, but do you love life? I want to live another 50 years."

In addition to better eating, the couple is planning to increase their exercise time away from the center when the weather improves.

Now that Joey and Carole have the knowledge and are walking the walk, they are focused on educating their 15-year-old son about the importance of heart health.

According to the couple, the entire experience has increased their faith in God and the purpose Joey has in life.

"I truly believe God has a plan and when I talked to Dr. Moores more, he said if I would have stopped at any point on the way to the hospital Joey would have died," Carole said. "Everything that happened, happened the way it had to."

Joey agreed.

"I can't say I was always the best person in life, but God's definitely got something bigger for me," he said. "I believe he worked through Dr. Moores and the emergency room staff. I'm here because of them and what they did."

Joey has a record of high blood pressure, has heart disease in his family history and had chest pain in the past, though he ignored the pain, believing it to be bodily strain from increased exercise.

"I thought I was invincible, but I was a walking time bomb," he added. "It kind of brought me to my knees. If you're given these signs, pay attention to them. If you think something is the matter, look into it. People really need to get stress tested and check out the small issues that can lead to a heart attack."

Going forward, Joey has found a new purpose regarding heart health and a new appreciation for living.

"I really would like to get into some motivational speaking to spread awareness about getting tested," he said. "I want to teach people and be a resource for them. I'd also like to volunteer at the hospital. I'm an artist and I'd like to do murals for the kids in there. I was treated so well. I'd like to pay them back.

"Everything has changed in my life. I wish the heart attack hadn't happened, but at the same time I'm kind of glad because it woke me up and gave me a second chance at life."