What happens when someone comes back to life after being clinically dead? LUKE VOOGT goes beyond the grave with a scuba diver, an MP and a paramedic to find out.
After being dead for minutes, the first thing Lara’s John Wilson remembers is waking in pool of his own blood from his saltwater-ravaged lungs.
“I remember lucidly seeing the blood everywhere on the back of the boat,” the 38-year-old says.
“On a white rigid inflatable boat the blood stands out.”
John had been diving for 10 years before his brush with death off the coast of Point Lonsdale on 20 April, 2012.
He and a boatfull of friends had planned to dive at a shipwrecked late-1800s steamboat.
John was using equipment that recirculates expelled oxygen, unlike regular scuba equipment which expels a diver’s breath into the ocean.
The gear allows deeper and longer dives, he explains.
John checked the gear twice before getting on the boat, but an associate accidently shut a vital cylinder when they put it on the boat, he says.
He had no idea he was slowly suffocating as he sat on the edge of the boat, before pitching forward.
“I’m basically breathing this dangerous cocktail of carbon dioxide,” he says.
“The only thing I can remember, out of any of it, was it was just dark.”
John’s diving mates thought he was “messing around” as he hung head-down in the ocean, swallowing saltwater.
They mistook his death throes for him kicking to get underwater, until a crew member realised something was wrong.
“She ripped her gear off and jumped in the water,” he says.
Together they pulled the 115kg, 180cm-plus diver onto the boat and resuscitated him.
“They had a big job getting my dead ass back on the boat,” he says.
Ironically, a couple women on the boat participated in a rescue course John had taught a few weeks earlier.
John felt “nothing” drifting in and out of consciousness on the boat and in the ambulance.
“It’s almost like a rebirthing because you’ve got no concept of what’s happening,” he says.
As medical staff moved him to intensive care, following a secondary drowning, he heard one say, “you’d better call his parents”.
He remembers the “uncomfortable“ pain of a ventilator after.
“It’s like someone is reaching underneath your ribcage and trying to pull (it) out through the front of your body,” he says.But miraculously the incident left little permanent scaring on John’s lungs, allowing him to “dive straight back in” a month later.
“I knew if I didn’t get back into the water and get diving straight away … I would have walked away from the sport,” he says.
The Bay City Scuba owner loves diving, which he says for most humans is the closest thing to “zero gravity”.
“You don’t hear any mobile phones, there’s no people talking to you, it’s just peace and quiet.”
Fellow Lara resident John Eren was lucky to be at University Hospital Geelong when he clinically died for three minutes on 16 September, 2016.
John’s wife and two of his sons watched as he lost consciousness from a heart attack after a few minutes sitting in emergency.
“My peripheral vision started to get dark,” the Member for Lara says.
“I looked at (my son) and said I’m going to faint. I hit the floor dead.”
His face alternated between red and purple as medical staff revived him, his family told him after.“Before their eyes they thought they were going to lose their dad,” he says.
He remembers staff wheeling him into an operating theatre, where a surgeon inserted a stent through his groin and into his heart.
“I’m lying there watching the monitor screen thinking this is all a dream,” he says.
Earlier, John’s wife had turned their car around when he had chest pain on their way to visit his dad in Melbourne for Father’s day.
John tried to wind down the window as he felt “something heavy” trying to “break out” of his chest, nausea and an ache in his left arm, he says.
“I was petrified because I knew that there was something really wrong. I’ve never had this panic before and I’ve been through some pretty tough things.”
He felt helpless and grew sad as he thought of leaving his family behind and not having the chance to retire and travel more.
“I knew at that point I might die, and then you think, ‘hang on I’m too young to die’,” he says.
“Your body fights it with all it can and I think that’s what got me to the hospital.”
In a silver-lining Geelong’s hospital was “full of middle-aged men going for a check-up” following the MP’s heart attack, he says.
John’s family history put him at risk, with his mother and uncles suffering heart problems, he says.
He urges anyone with severe chest pains to phone triple zero and says he is “forever indebted” to the hospital’s staff.
But surviving a drowning or cardiac arrest is “quite uncommon“, according to Herne Hill paramedic Nathan Ross.
Even rarer are callouts where paramedics revive somebody who is clinically dead, the 40-year-old says.
“You remember them very clearly. In my 18 years (as a paramedic in Victoria, Northern Territory and Western Australia) it’s happened only (a few) times.”
Normally paramedics either prevent the patient from deteriorating to that state or arrive too late, Nathan explains.
He remembers reviving an elderly man who suffered a heart attack in Flinders St, Melbourne, just 18 months into his career.
“He probably would have been unconscious for about two minutes without electrical activity in his heart,” he says.
“The call must have come through when we were just around the corner.
“It gave us the time to get our hands on the man’s chest quickly – it was exactly what he needed.“
He admits being nervous at first, despite training constantly to defibrillate and revive patients.
“I guess the community thinks cardiac arrests are our bread and butter, and that we go to them very often, but we don’t,” he says.
He remembers his excitement at saving a life when the man started breathing.
But his colleague brought him back down to earth, tapping him on the shoulder and reminding him that many patients still die in intensive care after revival.
“Especially the elderly,” he says.
Luckily the man survived. He sobbed uncontrollably as he and his family met Nathan in hospital.
“The first thing he said was thank you,” he says.
Saving patients’ lives and meeting with them afterwards are some of the most rewarding moments of the job, he says.
“You don’t want anyone to go through that but it’s a very moving experience, that’s for sure.”
The father-of-two says his job would be harder without the support of his kids and “tolerant” wife.
“My little boy thinks I’m a hero – he actually said the other day that he wants to be a paramedic.
“But he also said, ‘if you were a gardener I’d probably want to be gardener instead’,” he adds with laugh.
For Nathan knowing he has “done everything correctly” is the best way of dealing with the trauma of “horrific jobs”, along with family support, exercise and occasional counselling, he says.
“You never really leave the job – you’re still studying and thinking about the shifts of the week.”