Cliff Shim was jogging in downtown Vancouver with his dog Bowser around 11 p.m. on April 7 when his heart suddenly stopped beating and he collapsed. He normally runs along the seawall, he explained, but decided to go downtown that night for a “change of scenery.”
“It’s definitely a miracle that I’m here today,” Shim said Thursday outside St. Paul’s Hospital, where more than two dozen staff cared for him over several weeks.
“Had I been on the seawall there’s a very good chance there would have been nobody there, but because I was downtown a bystander was able to come along and give me a hand.”
Shim believes the bystander saw his dog on a leash without an owner and eventually found him on the ground. The bystander gave him CPR until paramedics could come and shock his heart back into a normal rhythm.
Dr. Kevin Lichtenstein told Global News his phone rang around 2 a.m. and he ran to St. Paul’s Hospital from his Yaletown home, having been told a patient needed the ECMO machine immediately.
“This is a very time sensitive intervention,” the cardiac surgeon explained. “The majority of people who have cardiac arrest outside the hospital don’t survive.”
An ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine takes blood out of the heart, circulates it through a filter that oxygenates it and pumps it back into the body, doing the work of the heart, the lungs or both. It has been used throughout the pandemic on severe COVID-19 patients, for whom a ventilator will not suffice.
Shim had no ID on him while he was jogging, and with no next of kin around and no time to spare, Lichtenstein said he and the other medical staff were forced to make medical decisions for him. Shim’s lungs had suffered a serious injury and it was clear his heart would fail again, he said.
Shim is “extremely lucky” to be alive, Lichtenstein added.
“Despite these events not having a great outcome sometimes, there are stories like Cliff’s that make it worthwhile for all of us,” he said. “It’s why we get up in the morning and do what we do.”
Three or four weeks after the cardiac arrest, Shim underwent coronary bypass surgery. Meanwhile, his wife and kids lived with the reality that he might not survive, and if he did, he could have brain damage.
The 44-year-old cited luck, his dog, the kindness of a stranger and a dynamite care team for his recovery. He is now at home with his family, getting back on his feet, and said he is beyond grateful for all the support they have received both in the hospital and from the community.
“I’ve got my health, everyone around me is healthy,” he said.
“I genuinely see it as an opportunity to do things right, an opportunity to make good on all the promises I may or may not have made to myself.”
Shim said he wishes he had told someone where he was going that night and carried ID with him so he could have spared his family three to four hours of not knowing what had happened to him.
“You can imagine (my wife) was presuming the worst and she may have had some ESP or telepathy because clearly, the worst did happen,” he said.
“Communicate. Be in touch with the people you love, let them know where you’re going to be, because she had to call around.”
Shim said he has a tough “cognitive recovery” ahead and is suffering from some memory loss and difficulty finding words, but is otherwise “feeling okay.”
One of the most trying parts of his return to health, however, has been hearing how his loved ones processed the incident while he was in hospital — their fear, their pain and their love, he said.
“It makes me emotional knowing how much one is loved, how much one is cared about,” he said.
“It’s just knowing how much it’s affected my wife, my children, because it’s not over yet … I may have recovered, but there’s always this lingering worry it could happen again.”
Shim said he misses the news business and “doing all the things that I love,” but has been advised to take his time, no matter “how hard it is, sitting on the side lines.”