How a fire chief who suffered two heart attacks overcame difficulties

Wayne Kewitsch suffers second medical emergency while driving a month after son initiates CPR for his first SCA
Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is the third leading cause of death in the United States.In fact, someone dies from SCA every 90 seconds.
These events often take place outside the hospital, and survival largely depends on bystander intervention.If bystanders do intervene by performing CPR, survival rates often double or even triple.The key is to start treatment within the first minute.
However, nearly half of SCA victims have no one nearby to help them when they need it, and 9 out of 10 SCA victims die.
Kewitsch started in 1995 as a Paid Standby Firefighter in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.Previously, he was an EMT and worked for a private ambulance company in Chicago during his college days.In 2000, he was employed by the Richfield (Minnesota) Fire Department.He rose through the ranks to lieutenant, deputy chief, and chief in 2011.
Until July 1, 2020, Kewitsch’s 20-year career in the department has been smooth – until July 1, 2020.On that Wednesday, he was off work, but was still at work the day before.He plans to rest the rest of the week to enjoy an extended July 4th weekend.
When he came back from taking the trash to the curb, he felt a little strange.It only lasted about 15 seconds and then disappeared.
“It felt like I had a steel bar in my sternum and someone was standing on it,” Kewitsch said.
But since the feeling went away as soon as it appeared, Kewitsch shrugged and attributed it to a reflux he had previously dealt with.
“I went back to the house and had some yogurt, sat in a chair, and started sending some emails,” he recalls.”The next thing I remember is waking up in the ambulance because we were going to Code 3 at the University of Minnesota.”
“My wife was working from home because of COVID-19 and she came out to buy her coffee,” he said.”She heard my painful breathing and screamed for our son, who was also home from college with COVID-19.”
They put Kewitsch on the floor, and his son began performing hand-only CPR—a skill Kewitsch taught him as a Boy Scout.
“And, of course, my address is marked in the CAD system,” he said.”The lieutenant on duty recognized the address and he said, ‘That’s the chief’s house.’”
Edina staff responded to the Kewitsch house, including two police officers, two medical equipment and an engine company.
“There were five or six paramedics working for me in the back of the ambulance. They shocked me once at home. I went back to VF and they decided to take me to the University of Minnesota, where they were doing ECMO for refractory VF patients. ”
Edina’s medical staff also used a device called the EleGARD, which is used for device-assisted head-up CPR.”It elevates the torso so you can do head-up CPR. It lowers the intracranial pressure and you get better perfusion,” explains Kewitsch.
Kewitsch regained consciousness and began talking to one of the medical staff.”His dad worked with me and he just recently retired,” he said.”He was like, ‘Chief, Chief,’ and I looked up at him — I was at VF — and I said, ‘Say hello to your father for me.’ And then I heard them say, ‘Okay, Chief, this will It hurts.’”
They startled Kewitsch again, and he regained consciousness.”That time, I switched and maintained sinus rhythm. So, when I got to the cath lab, I was talking; I sat up and was able to put myself on the table.”
It turned out that Kewitsch’s left anterior descending coronary artery (also known as the widow maker) was 80 percent blocked.He spent a total of 51 hours in the hospital and was discharged on the weekend of July 4.
“I went home and started cardiac rehabilitation,” he said.”I’m doing everything I need to because I’m planning to go back to work.”
So far, Kewitsch has been doing cardiac rehabilitation three times a week.On rest days he walked two miles and felt fine.On the morning of Aug. 21, Kewitsch and his wife drove to a friend’s cabin when “suddenly, everything turned grey.”
“My wife looked because the car was starting to swerve a little to the right. She looked and was like, ‘Oh, no more.’ She grabbed the steering wheel and steered us off the highway.”
At the time, they were traveling at 60 mph on a two-lane highway.His wife was able to steer them off the highway, but they ended up in a cattail swamp about 40 yards away.
“The car behind us was a young couple, and his wife, Emily, was a nurse,” Kewiche said.”She told her husband Matt, ‘Pull over, something went wrong,’ and she dragged it into the swamp. Matt called 911 and tried to figure out where we were because we had taken the sign off.”
“The first AED on site was the Emergency Management Director – who was also an EMT – and they threw the AED at me and they took turns doing CPR on me and the bag valve mask. They ended up shocking me seven times. ”
After the seventh and final shock, Kewitsch regained consciousness.”They turned on the IO and I yelled. I remember Ruth saying, ‘The pain is fine. Stay with me,’ and they threw me on the backboard.”
Paramedics had to take Kewitsch across the swamp and back to the ambulance.The crew drove to Onamia, a nearby city, where a medical evacuation helicopter was waiting for him.
“I remember getting out of the ambulance, being pushed into the helicopter, and getting into the helicopter,” recalls Kewitsch.”They told me it was a 30-minute drive to the university, so they were going to take me back to the University of Minnesota.”
“They ended up doing an electrophysiology study and they found a faulty pathway, and they dealt with it. They ablated and implanted a defibrillator. They also did an MRI and found no scar tissue in my heart. … there was no ischemia, so they really don’t know what caused the second.”
In January 2021, Kewitsch became executive director of the Minnesota Firefighters Initiative, an organization dedicated to providing firefighters with the tools necessary to prioritize and protect their health and well-being.
Ruth and I met two heroes today.As many of you know, I went into cardiac arrest on my second discharge…
“MnFIRE has been around since 2016, and we advocate for the health of firefighters,” Kewitsch said.”We train and educate on three areas that affect firefighters: heart disease, emotional trauma and cancer.”
“I went through the whole grieving process. One day I was a chief, then I wasn’t. I’ll never wear my gear again. I’ll never go to fire again. I’ll never go”
“What makes all these chains of survival work not once, but twice, and being able to survive and stay neurologically intact…I’m a very, very lucky person,” he said.”Because we do save people from cardiac arrest, their outcomes are usually not that great.”
Whenever he talks to firefighters, Kewitsch shares his personal experience as a reminder not to ignore the importance of warning signs—no matter how big or small.
“I think one of the reasons firefighters deny the warning signs is that they fear it will be the end of their careers. It could be. But would you rather be alive and be able to spend time with friends and family, or die?”
“A doctor came in after my first surgery and said, ‘You should go buy a lottery ticket.’ I said, ‘Doctor, I’ve won the lottery.’”
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Sarah Calams was previously Associate Editor for FireRescue1.com and EMS1.com, and is now Senior Associate Editor for Police1.com and Corrections1.com.In addition to her regular editorial duties, Sarah delves into the people and issues that make up the public safety profession, bringing insights and lessons to first responders around the world.
Sarah is a graduate of the University of North Texas in Denton, TX with a BA in Journalism/Editorial Journalism.Have a story idea you’d like to discuss?Email Sarah or connect on LinkedIn.
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Post time: Mar-30-2022