For acute care providers, saving lives is all in a day’s work. You do your best. You hand the patient off or discharge them. You rarely hear the outcome.
But once in a while, you do. Emergency physician Kendrick Johnson, MD, was surprised when a former patient, Dennis Ow, reached out to him almost a year later. Today on Perspectives, both share the heartwarming story of their reunion — and the lessons they learned about gratitude.
Johnson: In the fall of 2016, someone named Dennis started calling me at work. His messages would end up on Post-Its in my mailbox. And I would sort of triage my way through the pile and never get back to him. But he kept calling faithfully every week. And finally, one of the staff said, "This patient really wants to have dinner with you."
Well, that isn’t something you hear every day in the ED. I didn't remember the name, but I was intrigued enough to look him up. And about a year ago, this Dennis Ow had gone out running and collapsed in cardiac arrest. He was actually dead in the field.
Ow: On Sept. 15, 2015, I was finishing a distance run around Lake Natoma with three friends from my running group. Lisa and I decided to sprint to the end. I was about 75 feet from finishing, and she was in front of me. Ben and Nicole were behind me, and they saw me go down. They figured I’d tripped and hit my head. Actually, I was having a heart attack.
Johnson: The statistics around out-of-hospital cardiac arrest are pretty grim. Only 6 to 10 percent of those patients survive. And a large percentage of the survivors have some significant degree of neurological impairment. Every minute before intervention makes a difference.
Ow: My running group has 40 to 50 members. Of them, four of us know CPR, and I’m one. Luckily, Lisa was also one of the four. She realized I was in cardiac arrest and started compressions immediately while Nicole called 911. Luckily a police officer was nearby, and he rushed over with some basic resuscitation equipment. The ambulance arrived quickly and got me to the ED at Mercy Hospital of Folsom.
Johnson: Dennis had a lot of things working in his favor. His friends, the police officer, and the paramedics all intervened quickly. At the ED, we intubated him, placed a central line, and got him cooled down. Then we transferred him to a hospital with a cardiac cath lab, where they stented the blocked artery in his heart.
Ow: I don’t have any memory of being in the hospital. And I actually lost about two weeks of memory leading up to the event. But as time went on, I started trying to piece together what had happened while I was out.
One thing was clear. The people closest to me were having a harder time than I was. Over the next six months, I probably gained 15 pounds having dinner with friends, having drinks with friends, and reassuring them, "You did good. I’m fine. I’m really fine."
I was also curious about the providers: nurses, police, and paramedics who’d cared for me. And that feeling intensified as I realized how rare my positive outcome was. Dr. Johnson later told me that the chances of surviving an out-of-hospital arrest and getting back to your previous functioning were maybe one in 400. Those strangers were the reason I was standing there alive. I wanted to meet them at least once to say thank you.
And that’s where I came up with the idea for the dinner to celebrate the one-year mark after the accident. I started tracking down all the players. But by then, a lot of time had gone by. Could I find them? Would they remember me?
Johnson: I held on to Dennis' message. But as it often happens around the ED, I got wrapped up in other things. But then he called again … the night before the dinner as it turns out. And the stars sort of aligned. I wasn’t working. I didn’t have the kids. And I thought, I’m going to go.
Ow: Twelve people RSVPed: the police officer, one of the paramedics, Dr. Johnson, and friends who’d supported me in the hospital and through my recovery. At the restaurant, I had the honorees sit in the chronological order in which they’d helped me, starting with Lisa, then the police officer, and so on. Each place was marked by a gift bag with the person’s name.
Johnson: Dennis opened with a toast. He talked about how grateful he was to be alive and how this experience really changed him. He said that simple things really are more meaningful to him now. He gave us this incredibly heartfelt thank you. It was really quite a moment.
Dennis: I got pretty emotional. It was just something I really needed to say. And then I had them open their bags.
Johnson: And get this. Inside, there was a picture of his heart.
Dennis: So I came up with this concept and worked with an artist to put it together. After some wrangling with the hospital, I got ahold of some images of my heart before and after the stent placement. We created a graphic with the before picture and some EKG-themed calligraphy. The message said, "Thank you for putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again. You will always have a piece of my heart." And we placed this on one side of a two-sided acrylic frame.
Next at the dinner, I recapped the story of my recovery. I went through the whole thing person by person. And as I was talking, I’d say, "Let me borrow your frame." And I would place it face down in front of me at the head of the table.
They could see there was another image on the back. And after awhile, those images started to create a larger single picture. When all 12 frames were together, I told them, "And here’s a picture of my heart after."
Johnson: It was really, really clever.
Ow: The concept came to me after running a relay race. Everyone on the team gets a medal. When combined and pieced together correctly, the flipsides of the medals reveal a message to the team. And I thought, well, these 12 were like a team too. They did their job and passed me along not knowing the end of the story. But for me to survive and have this great outcome, it depended on all of them being near perfect.
Johnson: I’ve been practicing medicine since 1993. And this artwork is one of two expressions of gratitude I've received from patients that really mean a lot to me. The other is a thank you card from a college student I treated for a facial laceration. It’s a picture young boy holding up a flower.
I’ve had that taped to the back of my office door for years. And now I also have Dennis’ paperweight on my desk.
Ow: So afterward, I closed by telling them that while saving lives may all be in a day’s work for them, I’ll always appreciate what they did for me. As professionals, they don't go through the day expecting thank-yous. But for me, I could not let this event pass without sharing my gratitude in some small way.
Johnson: It helps a lot. In the ED, we're very good at compartmentalizing our emotions. But when you open up to receive gratitude from a patient, I think it really helps your career longevity and satisfaction. You have a more complete recognition of why we do the kind of work we do and why it matters.
Ow: One thing I learned through this experience: most of us don't say thank you enough. Seeing their reactions was really enlightening. The police officer in particular kind of moved me. He said, "You know, it’s not the easiest time to be a cop. This positive recognition means a lot." So from now on, I’m definitely going to make saying thank-you a habit.
A year after his heart attack, Dennis Ow was back to building his real estate business and ran the Maui Marathon. He was invited by the Folsom paramedics to share his story with their new recruits. Area newspaper and television stations also covered his story.
Dr. Johnson continues to practice emergency medicine at Mercy Hospital of Folsom.
Originally posted November 2016.