It was Mother's Day 2014, and Gary Wagner was doing some yard work. "I came in because I was not feeling well," Gary recalls. "I had lot of back pain. I went upstairs in the bathroom to get into the Jacuzzi. Liz heard me fall." Liz, Gary's wife, picks up the story from here. "I heard a crash and ran upstairs. He had fallen straight down with his arms at his side and his face was turned up. He was convulsing. I yelled to my daughter, who was eight at the time, to go downstairs and don't come back up."
Liz called 911 and put the dispatcher on speakerphone. She turned Gary over and put her ear to his chest. "There was nothing," she says. They later learned that Gary was having the type of heart attack commonly referred to as "the widow maker" because it's so deadly.
Liz had learned CPR in high school and brushed up on it in 2008, when she and Gary brought their premature twins home after a stay in the NICU. "But that was six years ago," she says. The dispatcher, Christine Muccino, told her exactly what to do. "Thirty compressions, then again. I just kept doing sets of thirty compressions and he was not coming back. His eyes were open. She was counting with me."
Liz remembers all the thoughts that were rushing through her head. It was a beautiful, sunny Mother's Day. "My twins were five, and I thought, 'Are they going to remember him? Oh my God I have to tell his mother'." But she says, "I didn't stop. That's the thing. I didn't stop. He was dead. He was clearly dead. I kept saying 'he's dead', and the dispatcher still kept telling me to do it. When the police officer came in with the AED, I told him he was dead, too. When the paramedics came, they pulled me off him and sent me downstairs, and all three kids were huddled on the couch."
Gary was taken to University Hospitals Ahuja Medical Center, where the heart attack was still ongoing. "Dr. Michel Cunningham put the stent in and then came out and said 'I need to talk to you about your CPR'." Dr. Cunningham asked me "to tell him how I did it, because the damage to the heart was minimal and he was amazed." The nurses on the heart unit were amazed too when they saw Liz. With the five solid minutes of life-saving chest compressions Liz had performed, they'd been expecting a much larger woman. Liz is just 5'2" and around one hundred pounds, while Gary is 5'9" and was nearly 200 pounds when he had his heart attack.
"In terms of needing to ever use CPR, I thought it would happen someplace where someone would be more qualified than me - the rec center, grocery store - but in my case it happened on a beautiful, sunshiny day and I was the only one there." Not surprisingly, Liz now encourages everyone she knows to learn CPR. "You can learn CPR and not need it your whole life," she says. "But if you do, it could change your life." Gary continues top receive ongoing cardiac care. Liz says, "But this is our life now. That's just how we live."
"I would hope that other women could see a little bit of themselves in me," she summarizes. "If I can do it, you can do it. It was the worst day of my life, but it was my proudest day, too."