Donald Brewer doesn’t remember anything that happened on Feb. 5, 2016, except for one thing.
The then-72-year-old called his lady friend to say he may be a little late for their date for her birthday because he wasn’t feeling well.
While he didn’t know how sick he was, Brewer had an inkling something was wrong. His internet browser history revealed he searched symptoms of a heart attack 10 minutes before he left for a walk in his Gainesville neighborhood.
Brewer, who has a master’s degree in physical education and sports, said whenever he feels bad he exercises.
“I know that I was thinking, ‘I’ll go for a walk and if I don’t feel good, I’ll stop and go back home,’” he said. “But I didn’t make it home that day.”
He almost didn’t return at all. But at age 73, Brewer said he feels lucky to be alive after a heart attack and living in Hall County.
An emergency and a response
At 1:43 p.m. that day, Sybil Allaire was driving on Park Hill Drive in Gainesville when she saw a man collapse. She stopped her vehicle, got out and immediately began CPR on the stranger.
Kyle Powers, a paramedic with Hall County Fire Services, said Allaire’s actions were invaluable. He explained that for every minute that passes without CPR, a patient’s chance of survival decreases 10 percent. The national average response time for a paramedic is 8 minutes, he said.
“If the only way we did this was by doing our part, that patient only has a 20 percent chance of living,” he said.
Powers said if Allaire hadn’t responded as quickly as she had, Brewer’s case could have turned out differently.
Once the paramedics arrived, they took over CPR and used an automatic external defibrillator to shock Brewer’s heart back into rhythm.
“Once we got him in the back of the ambulance and continued some of our advanced care, he did in fact get a pulse back and start breathing on his own,” Powers said.
Brewer was taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville where doctors stabilized his breathing and vitals.
After an electrocardiogram (a test that measures the heart’s electrical activity), Brewer was diagnosed with the most severe form of heart attack. He was rushed to the cardiac catheterization laboratory and a catheter, or flexible narrow tube, was placed in his artery to supply his heart with blood and oxygen.
Doctors discovered a blood clot was blocking 100 percent of a major vessel supplying blood to his heart, which had caused his heart to stop. Doctors removed the clot and 31 minutes after arriving at the hospital — and 87 minutes from the time of cardiac arrest — Brewer’s artery was opened and blood was flowing again.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village almost to break somebody out from cardiac arrest,”
Two months later, Brewer was released from the hospital.
“If you tell me I laid in the hospital 12 weeks and didn’t go crazy, I’d say you’re crazy,” Brewer said. “But I couldn’t do much else.”
However, his recovery wasn’t easy. Brewer had to learn to walk and swallow again. He used a walker and a feeding tube.
“I was more worried about being able to eat again,” he said. “I felt like I could do the walking part eventually, but learning to swallow ... ”
The experience was tough on his children as well.
Jason Brewer, who lives in Cincinnati, traveled between Northeast Georgia and Ohio to care for his father. But as Donald’s eldest son, Jason admitted to losing hope for his father while he was in the hospital.
Recalling his father’s first day of in-patient therapy at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, Jason said Donald could only sit and stand. He couldn’t walk, use the restroom on his own or eat, Jason said.
“It was very frustrating seeing somebody who walked five miles a day, five days a week and biked 30 miles a day, three days a week, his entire life, like that,” Jason said.
But his children and friends stayed with him around the clock for a month when he finally returned home. And they celebrated small steps as Donald’s determination helped him relearn skills that were once automatic.
“I never thought he’d play golf again. I never thought his lungs would get better,” Jason said. “Now, he’s playing golf. He’s enjoying life.”
Brewer said he feels fortunate to live in Gainesville and have access to a medical center that saved his life.
“If there’s one quote I could say ... it’s, I was a guy lying on the side of the road and from the time I was picked up by the EMTs to the today, I’ve been treated by over 140 medical personnel,” he said. “Every single one of them treated me like I was one of the most important people in the world and that’s important.”
One very important person during his cardiac arrest, however, was still a stranger to him.
In May, Brewer found out the name of the woman who saw him collapse and probably saved his life. Until then, Allaire’s identity was a mystery.
The mystery was solved thanks to a sermon from the pastor of First Baptist Church in Gainesville, where Brewer is a member. The pastor, the Rev. Dr. Bill Coates, preached about being a Good Samaritan and used Brewer’s cardiac arrest as an example. One of Allaire’s friends heard it and told her about it, which led to a meeting of the two.
“It was pretty emotional,” Brewer said of finally meeting Allaire. “We didn’t know who she was for a long time.”
Brewer, however, did know he was predisposed to heart problems.
“Every male in my family has died of a heart-related issue,” he said, adding his father died of a heart attack at age 44. “So it’s in the family.”
Brewer had heart bypass surgery twice — once when he was 42 and again in January 2016. He maintained his health with diet and exercise, including walking 5 or 6 miles a day before his surgery in January 2016. After that, he decreased it to a couple of miles, like the distance he planned to walk the day he collapsed in February.
Now, Brewer works out about an hour each day. He does 35 minutes of cardio by walking, lifts weights and stretches. Some of that is done at Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s outpatient rehab center, he said.
“The truth of the matter is, according to the doctors, if I had not been exercising on a regular basis, my heart probably would have never made it through this.”