BY DONNA VICKROY at Southtownstar
Did a miracle occur in Chicago’s Beverly community Oct. 26?
John Murphy thinks so. So does his wife, Donna, his sister, Patty Sullivan, and just about everyone who hears his story.
How else to explain how a man’s heart can stop and be restarted nine times, first in the ambulance in front of his South Side home, then in the emergency department at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park?
How else to explain the perfectly synchronized series of events that led to his amazing recovery: the speedy arrival of paramedics, the nearly empty hospital waiting room despite the fact that it was a Saturday evening, the prompt response of a cardiologist who was out to dinner with his family when he got the page?
The stars aligned in Murphy’s favor that night. And the Chicago police officer forever will be grateful.
Murphy, an evidence technician in the CPD’s organized crime division, gets choked up just talking about it.
“One guy (at the hospital) called me Lazarus,” Murphy said, referring to the biblical story about a man Jesus raised from the dead. “I’ve been a little closer to God since all this happened.”
Dr. Daniel Rowan, medical director of the cardiac catheterization lab at Little Company, said Murphy is lucky to be alive.
“Most people in his situation don’t survive,” Rowan said. He estimates 10 percent to 20 percent of patients who come to the ER in Murphy’s condition actually make it into the catheterization lab for treatment.
“He was fortunate that his cardiac arrest occurred just as paramedics were arriving,” Rowan said. “And he was fortunate his wife was really insistent about calling 911. She saved his life.”
Earlier that day, John and Donna Murphy were at Manor Care in Palos Heights, visiting John’s brother Bob.
“John didn’t look right,” Donna recalled. “He was pale and looked tired.”
Donna attributed his coloring to a bout of indigestion he’d had after eating a banana that morning, and to the warmth of the nursing home room.
“I remember saying, ‘Palos Hospital is right down the road,’ ” she said.
But Murphy thought he was OK. And with good reason. The 57-year-old Army veteran had been seeing his doctor regularly while he recovered from a thumb injury suffered on the job. He’d recently lost some weight, and his blood-work numbers, including his cholesterol, were impressive.
Only one variable hung in the balance: a family history of heart disease. Still, with no previous cardiac symptoms and bolstered by his loss of more than 30 pounds, Murphy chalked up his discomfort that autumn day to a bad stomach.
There was little reason for him to think that his left anterior descending artery was completely blocked. Though he doesn’t remember the incidents of that day, nor much of the previous week, Donna and Patty certainly do.
Donna recalled how they’d picked up beef sandwiches for dinner, how her husband had eaten half and then said again that he was not feeling well. “He was sitting at the edge of the sofa,” Donna said, “looking pale and clammy. I called 911.”
Then she called Patty, a nurse and home health care manager. “When I got there, his pulse was 34,” Patty said. Paramedics arrived in time to shock his heart right in front of the house. “I knew it wasn’t good,” Donna said. “They just kept working on him.”
Then they called another truck, a sure sign of the situation’s severity. Additional staff enables more than one paramedic to work on a patient while a third drives to the hospital. The first responders would shock John’s heart another three times before getting him to the ER. He would get five additional shocks at the hospital.
“Nine times,” Murphy said recently, while sitting in an easy chair in the living room, resting his head against his “Duck Dynasty” blanket. “If I were a cat, I’d be hiding under that sofa right now.” When they got to Little Company, the waiting room was practically empty, Donna recalled. Later, Murphy would marvel at this. “I’ve been in that ER many times while on duty and it’s never empty, especially on a Saturday.”
That all changed, of course, when word spread among Chicago’s finest that one of their own was in jeopardy. Like Murphy has done many times for fellow officers, including partners killed in the line of duty, friends and colleagues gathered to show support. “I never saw so many police officers,” Patty said.
The Murphy family’s service to the city is longstanding. John’s father, Robert E. Murphy, was a police officer. His sons, Will and John, are too. And then there are the brothers, uncles and nephews. Donna’s father, Sgt. Jack Wallenda, was a Chicago homicide detective who played a key role in the capture and prosecution of mass murderer Richard Speck.
Within minutes, a cardiac catheterization was in place. Rowan said the lab staff’s goal is to get a patient’s blocked artery opened within 90 minutes of his arrival. It has met the goal 100 percent of the time, no small feat, Rowan said, considering the hospital’s volume is higher than that of Loyola, Rush and University of Illinois hospitals.
“The South Side of Chicago and the southwest area has the highest concentration of cardiovascular disease in the metropolitan area,” Rowan said. So how did John Murphy go from seemingly good health to critical condition?
“You can have a blockage in an artery in the 40 (percent) to 50 percent range, which will not be picked up by a stress test.” Rowan said. If some kind of physical or emotional event causes that artery to rupture, cardiac arrest can be the outcome.
The body reacts by clotting to repair the rupture, Rowan said. Though the body’s intentions are good, when clotting occurs on a plaque buildup, it can create a 100 percent occlusion, he said. Rowan also said, like Murphy, some heart attack victims have atypical symptoms — exhaustion, indigestion and, a lot of times, “a feeling of impending doom.”
Once Murphy’s artery was cleared with an aortic balloon and a stent installed, his body temperature was lowered a few degrees for 48 to 72 hours as part of a special cooling protocol that helps prevent brain injury.
To just about everyone’s amazement, Murphy made a complete neurological recovery, something Rowan attributes to luck and the good work on the part of the emergency department, the intensive care unit and the cardiac cath lab staffs.
“John’s prognosis is excellent,” Rowan said. Though he did have a defibrillator installed and he did suffer some mild to moderate heart damage, “There’s no residual damage to other organs,” Rowan said. “With medication and treatment, I expect him to make a full and complete recovery.” Rowan, a lifelong South Sider, said: “I’m very happy for him. I hope to go golfing with him soon.”
In addition to praising the hospital staff and emergency workers, Patty credits divine intervention for her brother’s remarkable recovery. “He’s a good person, has been his whole life,” Patty said. “Maybe it’s karma.”
Whatever superpowers were in his corner that day, Murphy is proud of the fact that he declined wheelchair service and walked out of the hospital 10 days later. “I was DOA when I got there,” he said. “But I walked out on my own.”
When he returned to his Beverly bungalow, he was greeted by a giant “welcome home” sign on his front lawn. He also received stacks of get-well letters from students at St. John Fisher School, where he attended grade school.
Now he wants to spread the word that a heart attack can happen even to people who think they’re in good shape. “If you have a family history of heart disease, get it checked out,” he said. “I’m so thankful for everyone who helped,” he said. “They all did a fantastic job.”
Then, this street-smart officer, who’s wrestled tough guys to the ground and helped make millions of dollars in arrests over the years, pauses to wipe away a tear. “I still get a little emotional over it all,” he said.