With Full Hearts: The Local Grassroots Movement Combating Sudden Cardiac Arrest

above from left: Deborah and Artie DiRocco, Mike Papale, Eva Saint, Melissa Fay, Sarah Swanberg

PHOTOGRAPHY BY KYLE NORTON

January 9, 2023, began as a normal day for Melissa Fay. The busy Stamford mom was juggling a lot, but that wasn’t unusual. Her daytime calendar had been full of meetings for her job at investment banking firm Drexel Hamilton, where she was in charge of capital markets and on the partner track. And on that cold, rainy night, she had taken her youngest child, son Wyatt, to swim practice at the New Canaan YMCA.

Normally, she would have used Wyatt’s hour of pool time for a quick run at nearby Waveny Park. Mike Papale leads a training at Third Place by Half Full in February. – Photograph: Sarah Swanberg

The former Navy helicopter pilot, who had served a tour of duty in Bahrain after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, was also a veteran of two marathons. At 45, with work and the calendars of two busy kids to manage, running had evolved into a way to squeeze fitness into her life. “Mostly, I ran because it was a fast way to burn some calories,” she explains with a laugh. Whenever she could, Fay preferred to log her miles outside. “The air would clear my head and it was a little time for me.”

But that evening Melissa had no interest in sloshing through Waveny’s trails in the bone-chilling winter rainstorm. She asked a YMCA staffer if she could take a run on a treadmill instead while Wyatt swam.

Walking into the Wellness Center, instead of heading into the park, proved fateful. For moments later, a group of strangers would save Fay’s life when her heart suddenly, inexplicably stopped beating.

A video from the Y’s cameras—which Fay still hasn’t seen—shows her crumpling on a treadmill mid-stride. It also shows the bystanders who stepped in, without hesitation, and began administering CPR before using an AED (automated external defibrillator) device to jumpstart her heart as Fay experienced a medical phenomenon known as sudden cardiac arrest.

Those heroic interveners included Eva Saint, the YMCA’s wellness director who did chest compressions, and Peter Aster, a retired registered nurse and professor who had been running near Fay on another treadmill. He assisted with life-saving breaths and helped Saint administer an AED shock to Fay’s heart while YMCA staffers called 911 and moved exercise machines, making way for her rescuers, the New Canaan EMS ambulance team whose station was, luckily, just up the road. When the EMTs arrived, they gave Fay’s heart another AED jolt as they worked to keep her alive on route to Norwalk Hospital.

“We didn’t think she was going to make it,” Fay’s friend Sarah Swanberg says of the scary week that followed when she fought for her life in a medically induced coma. “But it was like all the stars aligned to keep her alive. It was hard for us to believe all the things that were stacked in her favor that night. She ran inside; the guy on the next treadmill was a nurse. They had an AED machine nearby and people there knew how to use it. The EMTs were just a mile away.”

That is how Fay became one lucky mother.

And it is why she and a group of her closest Stamford mom friends have become part of a growing grassroots Fairfield County movement to educate their communities about sudden cardiac arrest, teach them CPR and donate lifesaving AEDs into places ranging from breweries, to little league dugouts and yoga studios.

“We were so grateful to have our friend, to know her amazing kids would have a mother and Kevin [Fay’s husband] would have a wife,” says Swanberg, an acupuncturist and founder of Indigo Wellness, a holistic integrative health practice based in Stamford and Westport. “We knew we had to do something to pay it forward. And we decided, the best way to do that was to make sure other people knew how to save a life and had the ability to do it.”

In a Heartbeat

left: Sarah Swanberg, Melissa Fay, Eva Saint; right: Mike Papale

The sudden cardiac arrest that took Fay down at the New Canaan YMCA treadmill last year is medically quite different from what most of us might recognize as a heart attack. With sudden cardiac arrest there are no telltale chest pains, no shortness of breath or time to call out for help. Anyone who watched Buffalo Bill’s defensive back Damar Hamlin’s devastating collapse following a tackle during January 2023 NFL game has witnessed the distinction.

“The biggest difference between sudden cardiac arrest and a heart attack is there’s no warning,” says Mike Papale, a 34-year-old Stamford resident and boys’ basketball coach at Fairfield Prep. Papale, like Fay, survived a sudden cardiac arrest when he was just 17. He explains the differences to the uninitiated this way: “A heart attack tends to be a plumbing problem and sudden cardiac arrest is more like a wiring problem.”

Some sudden cardiac arrests can be caused by trauma, as Hamlin’s was. In rare cases, with Fay’s being a good example, there’s no obvious medical explanation for why someone’s heart just stops.

Until last January, Fay had been in exceptional health. As a young woman, she had powered through the rigors of the grueling plebe year at Annapolis with no complications. She passed the exhaustive battery of tests required to put her in control of a Navy helicopter with no red flags. “We all thought she was just a badass,” says Swanberg.

“I have gone as far as the Mayo Clinic looking for answers on why this happened,” Fay says. “And the best one I can get, is that I’m one of about 30 percent of cases where there’s no explanation. I am completely healthy. The doctors tell me my heart is anatomically boring.”

Papale’s story of sudden cardiac arrest was different and far more common. He suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a fairly common congenital condition that affects the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber. Over time, it can cause the chamber’s walls to get stiff and thicken and is a leading cause of sudden cardiac arrest.

The Wethersfield native was an ambitious high school basketball player with college playing aspirations when he collapsed at his coach dad’s summer basketball camp.

“I was just sitting on the bleachers when I slumped over and fell to my knees,” says Papale. “It was so out of nowhere that people, including my dad and my brother, were standing around trying to figure out what was wrong.”

Like Fay, Papale’s life was saved by the quick intervention of a CPR-trained volunteer firefighter/EMT who just happened to be next door when his pager went off. “By the time he got to me I was turning blue,” says Papale. “There was no AED machine in the gym. He saved my life and the CPR he gave me meant my brain continued to receive oxygen during the time I was down.” Without that, Papale adds, the results could have been catastrophic causing brain damage and a host of life-altering complications.

Papale and his parents first learned of his heart condition, which could have been detected with a routine EKG, at the hospital. “They are being told, ‘Your son is probably not going to make it.’ And it was really hard for them to wrap their minds around how they could not know something was so terribly wrong with my heart.”

Papale’s near-death experience spurred his family and community into action. “I’m 17. I play basketball. I look healthy and my heart just stops. It made people want to do something,” Papale says.

Early on, he and his mother partnered with the American Heart Association, advocating for CPR training throughout the state. His family joined the lobbying efforts to support successful passage of a Connecticut law that now requires AED devices in all schools.

At 25 when Papale was working a dream job for the men’s team at his alma mater, Quinnipiac University, complications with the automated defibrator implanted in his chest at 17 required lifesaving open heart surgery. “It just made us all that more determined to give people the ability to save other people’s lives,” says Papale.

He is the founder and president of In a Heartbeat, a nonprofit that works to prevent deaths from sudden cardiac arrest and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Now a coach at Fairfield Prep, he also works as community relations manager for Guilford-based AED manufacturer Defibtech.

The training at Third Place by Half Full in February; Photograph: Beth Cooney Fitzpatrick

And that’s how Papale’s and Fay’s lives have fatefully intersected.

These two survivors, each grateful for lives filled with second chance days, both call Stamford home.

Papale and his girlfriend moved to the city last year, joining the burgeoning community of young professional urban apartment dwellers.

This year they began collaborating when Fay’s determined friends who formed a pay-it-forward alliance—the aptly named nonprofit Lucky Mother—with the goal of promoting CPR training while raising funds to donate AED devices to more local places where people gather.

Fay and Swanberg, who first met at their daughters’ kindergarten open house, are part of a closeknit group of Stamford moms dubbed the “four musketeers,” which also includes Carolyn Kagan and Amy Baker Casden. They share the bonds of book group, raising kids of similar ages and “just clicking.” Swanberg says she and Fay are the unlikely pairing in the mix. “We didn’t think we’d be friends. The first time I met her, I was wearing overalls and she was wearing her black business dress and pearls. I do acupuncture. She was in the Navy and seemed so buttoned up and corporate.”

But during the Covid-19 pandemic the friends formed a pod for their children. Friendships deepened. They pitched in to help when Carolyn’s teenage son had a heart transplant two months before Fay’s collapse.

After Fay’s sudden cardiac arrest, Swanberg says their shaken circle wanted to manifest their gratitude. “We’re all busy women, but we get s**t done,” she says.

Lucky Mother began with modest intentions, Swanberg says. The goal was to raise enough money to distribute a few AED machines in Stamford, but a January fundraiser exceeded their goals, netting $11,000.

Lucky Mother donated proceeds to In a Heartbeat because of Papale’s experiences as a survivor, CPR trainer and his larger platform. “He has the knowledge to educate people and he lives and breathes this stuff,” says Swanberg.

“These women are just so incredible and on it,” Papale says of their ongoing collaboration. “And as someone who is new to Stamford, they have opened a lot of doors for me, which just makes everything we do so much more impactful.”

Case in point was the sold-out CPR training class for 60 people Lucky Mother hosted with In a Heartbeat at Third Place by Half Full Brewery in February.

The training’s emotional significance was palpable as Papale and Fay each shared parts of their stories to a rapt audience. “You are looking at two people who would not be here had it not been for bystanders who gave them CPR,” Swanberg told the room. There were hugs and tears, and a shared sense of vulnerability.

Papale spent an hour teaching participants the basics of CPR and how to use an AED. Test dummies spread throughout the room became a proving ground for his message that the relatively simple act of strategically placing crisscrossed hands on someone’s chest and purposely pressing down to a rhythmic beat—he suggests humming the Bee Gee’s tune Stayin’ Alive—can give someone a chance at survival until emergency responders arrive.

Papale took on the many unfortunate myths that persist around administering CPR; fallacies he says keep too many people from attempting lifesaving basics. One myth is that administering CPR is tricky. (It’s not.) Another is good samaritans face risks, including catching a disease or doing something wrong.

Worried about germs? “You don’t have to do mouth-to-mouth breathing. The most important thing is doing those chest compressions,” Papale tells his students. And as for risking a lawsuit if there’s a bad outcome: “Good samaritan laws protect you,” Papale says. “You can’t be sued for trying to save a life.”

More George

Artie and Deborah DiRocco with a picture of their son George

George played baseball and football at Wilton High School, but his tragic death happened while he was at rest, attending a weekend backyard barbecue at a friends’ house. Much like Mike Papale’s family, the DiRoccos had no idea their son suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

“We assumed when this happened that what happened to George had to be rare,” says his mother. “But we learned within a month that it was not so rare at all.”

Artie DiRocco points out than an estimated one in 300 kids has the same heart defect as George and Mike Papale, making them vulnerable to a sudden cardiac arrest. “And sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in America,” he says. “We lose 350,000 people a year to this. The idea that we can do things to prevent it is motivating us.”

The DiRoccos desire to prevent more tragedies inspired them to start More George, a nonprofit which, like Lucky Mother, works in close partnership with In a Heartbeat to sponsor free EKG heart screenings for children, teens and young adults, while also promoting CPR training and the distribution of AED devices.

The nonprofit’s name was inspired by something the family’s minister said at George’s funeral, as he reflected on the comments many people made about the teen’s spirit and what had made him such a beloved son, brother and friend. “He simply said, ‘The world needs more George; more kindness more compassion, more integrity,’” Deborah says. “The title stuck with me. I felt like there was something pushing us to call it More George.”

“This can happen anytime, anywhere,” says Artie. “And we’re trying to make a difference one town, one community at a time,” says Deborah.

To date, More George has been responsible for the screenings of thousands of teens at high schools in Greenwich, New Canaan, Westport and Trumbull, while placing AED devices at every sports field in Wilton. In August 2024, More George will partner with In a Heartbeat to offer CPR training to more than 800 teachers, educators and staff of the Wilton Public Schools.

The couple has also joined forces with State Rep. Tom O’Dea to advocate for proposed legislation that will make EKGs a mandatory part of school sports physicals. “This is a simple test that takes 10 minutes but it isn’t being done, primarily because insurance doesn’t pay for it,” says Artie. “It needs to happen.”

Fay hopes to volunteer at their community EKG screening events and rally the Lucky Mother crew to join her.

A few days after the February training, Fay reflects on what was accomplished that Saturday morning as scores of people joined the CPR-certified ranks, including her parents. “It all left me in awe,” she says.

She says her “finance brain” loves what Lucky Mother accomplished in a short time. There are the AED machines they donated to Half Full, Connecticut Power Yoga, Indigo Wellness, the Alliance Center and all those CPR certifications. And more planned already.

“I don’t know where this will all go,” she says of what Lucky Mother started. “But I love the idea that we are doing things that could save another life.”

When we talked, it has been 13 months since she left Norwalk Hospital, just a remarkable week after her sudden cardiac arrest. After taking things slow for a while—and lots of assurances from her doctors—Fay eased back into her workaday life. She recently made partner at Drexel Hamilton, a veteran-owned-and-operated firm she’s proud to be part of because of its commitment to hiring and investing in her fellow veterans, many who served in combat. She is busy taking her kids to their activities. And yes, she is running again. In other words, she’s back to being kind of badass.

To partner with or make donations to these essential organizations, and to learn more about upcoming CPR trainings, EKG screenings, AED donations near you, please visit:
InAHeartbeat.org
Lucky-Mother.com
MoreGeorge.org


COMMUNITIES IN ACTION: THE NEW CANAAN YMCA

Melissa Fay’s sudden cardiac arrest at the New Canaan YMCA last year “validated everything we do as an organization to train and be prepared for events like this,” says its Executive Director Margaret Riley. “Up until that night, we had people here for twenty years who had never been called on to use their (CPR) training, but we were so grateful to be there when it was needed.”

The days after Fay’s collapse were punctuated by a mix of gratitude and some residual trauma for the YMCA staff. “We were completely in shock,” adds Wellness Director Eva Saint, who still downplays her role administering CPR to Fay. “When it happens, you are just on auto pilot. All your training kicks in and you automatically just want to jump in and help. But afterwards it was very emotional. Here’s this woman who was a helicopter pilot. You look at her and say, ‘How could this be happening to someone who was obviously so young and healthy.’ ”

On April 28, the YMCA hosted its second Hands for Life New Canaan, a day-long free community event featuring CPR trainings. A similar event held in 2013 trained more than a thousand town residents. “The goal is to create a community of confident and effective bystanders,” says Riley. “We saw what that could mean with Melissa and her experience was front and center at what motivated us to do this again.”


HEARTFELT GOODS

Melissa Fay and Sarah Swanberg of Lucky Mother present Conor Horrigan of Half Full Brewery with an AED. – Photograph: Rachael Lasnick

Conor Horrigan put the tap on serendipity when his team at Stamford’s Half Full Brewery launched Revive, a potent new IPA in January. Punctuated with hints of tropical fruits and some sassy bitterness, the IPA kicks things into high gear with an 8.5 percent alcohol content. Horrigan had already named Revive when he began collaborating with Lucky Mother, but the tie-in to its lifesaving mission inspired him. “It was a complete coincidence, but then I realized it’s the perfect way to support this cause,” he says. He is donating a portion of Revive’s sales to In a Heartbeat.

Also pitching in is Kylie O’Connor of Stamford-based Kylie’s Custom Creations. She envisioned her cozy cotton-blend Lucky Mother hoodies—emblemized with the org’s logo and the phrase ‘CPR Certified’ on the back—as a way to honor her late mother while supporting Lucky Mother’s efforts. She’s donating 20 percent of the proceeds from the sales to In a Heartbeat.


One Lucky Mother’s Re-Birthday

January’s fundraising event at Third Place raised $11,000, far exceeding Fay and friends’ expectations.


Melissa Fay with her circle of support the “I Like Big Books” club who work to educate about sudden cardiac arrest.


Fay with In a Heartbeat hero award winners Eva Saint and Peter Aster


Bridget Fox and Kathy Fox


Sherrill Fay, Kirsten Martinko, Christine Lee

Event Photographs: Rachael Lasnick

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