MAYNARD | Jan Niggemeyer knew her husband was in the bathroom shaving when she heard a loud noise. It was Steve. He had fallen and was gasping for breath. She shook him to try to bring him around. She called 9-1-1 and started CPR. Two volunteer firefighters from town were the first to arrive. They took over CPR.
Next came the emergency responders, who took over CPR for the Maynard firefighters. The ambulance crew arrived and three defibrillations later, they asked Jan where she wanted them to take Steve.
“I told them Allen, it’s the place to go for anything for the heart,” Jan said. “They took him to the hospital in Oelwein first to get him stabilized, then they transferred him to Allen.”
At UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital, preparations for Steve were under way long before he arrived. While Steve was being stabilized, Allen’s ER medical director, Dr. Chris Hill, talked with the doctor in Oelwein. Hill triggered a “Code Chill” alert for the Allen ER team, and while Steve was in transit, he instructed the ambulance crew to break out their ice packs to begin to cool him down.
When Steve arrived at the Allen ER, the Allen therapeutic hypothermia team used a cooling device with sets of gel pads to drop his body temperature even lower. They gave him medications to keep him from shivering, which raises body temperature, and monitored him constantly for the next 24 hours, as he remained a very cold 92 degrees. Anxiously, Jan and her family waited.
“When the heart stops beating properly, as Steve’s did when he suffered ventricular fibrillation, or v-fib — a deadly serious cardiac rhythm disturbance where the lower chambers of the heart quiver — it can't pump blood, and blood doesn’t flow to the brain,” explained Dr. Hill. “That’s bad enough, but most of the damage happens later, when blood suddenly returns to the brain. You have a less-than-five-percent chance of coming back with full neurological function without this hypothermia treatment.
“On top of that, there’s only a short window of time to get started, or this treatment won’t work. That’s why we started cooling him before he ever reached the Allen ER.”
“Waiting was hard,” Jan said. “Our kids were with me. We had no idea if he was going to wake up or what the outcome might be. The doctors said he had a good chance. You wait, and you hope. That was hard.”
At the end of Steve’s long and chilly day, he was gradually warmed.
“When they start to take the meds away, you wait for some responses and those are not quick,” Jan shared. “You worry, and wonder, and wait. He could squeeze our fingers and wiggle his toes. Later, he could nod his head that he could hear us. Eventually, he started to follow simple directions.”
Steve’s v-fib attack happened on Sept. 16. He was hospitalized at Allen for 11 days, in the ER, ICU and in cardiac rehab. Today, he’s continuing to make a good recovery at home.
“Everyone at Allen was just wonderful,” Jan said. “We were just lucky, very, very lucky. If this would have happened away from home, who knows? The doctors at Allen said everyone involved did all the right things at just the right times.”
Steve, who like Jan, is a retired West Central schoolteacher, is on leave from his coaching duties with the volleyball team. “Before this happened, when I became aware of the rhythm problems with my heart, I changed the way I lived and the food I ate,” he said. “I think that’s one of the things that helped me. I was pretty healthy as a result of that. People think nothing will hurt them, but it can.”