Portsmouth heart attack survivor helps get AED into hall

‘Could happen to any of us,’ Susan Young says

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PORTSMOUTH — Susan Young’s story had a happy ending, but she knows how close she came to not being able to tell it.

Four years ago, Ms. Young suffered a massive heart attack while attending a friend’s birthday party in Taunton, Mass. She had two sudden cardiac arrests, but fortunately she had EMTs to care for her quickly.

“They were bringing me to one hospital but after the second cardiac arrest, they re-routed me to Morton, which is the local hospital,” said Ms. Young. “I was in a coma and they did some testing and induced the hypothermic protocol, which means they take your body temperature down to 50 degrees. They pack you in ice — it slows down all your organ functions — and they zipped me to Brigham and Women's (Hospital) in Boston.”

There, she had open heart surgery. “I was at Brigham’s for 17 days. Probably one of the worst things I went through medically in my life,” she said.

She was only 57, and in good physical condition. 

“I was active back then, too. I worked and taught ballroom dancing,” she said.

The experience taught her that anyone can suffer a heart attack, so she decided to do something about it. The EMTs that came to her rescue four years ago had an automated external defibrillator (AED) with them, which she said helped save her life. These portable electronic devices automatically check the heart rhythm and can send an electric shock to the heart in an attempt to restore a normal rhythm. 

Two years ago, she sat down with Fire Chief Michael Cranson to get the ball rolling toward acquiring an AED for the Anthony Road community hall that’s operated by the Common Fence Point Improvement Association (CFPIA), of which she’s a board member.

Ms. Young knew how valuable the device would be at the building, where she teaches ballroom dancing and Zumba classes.

“It was very important for me, with all the activities we have here, to get an AED for this hall,” she said. “I would say we service 600 or more people a week who are continuously coming through here.”

She got in touch with Mike Papale of Connecticut, who founded In a Heartbeat Foundation in 2015 to raise money and awareness for cardiac conditions and for AEDs and training.

Mr. Papale suffered a heart attack himself while playing basketball in 2006, when he was only 17. EMTs performed CPR on him for eight minutes before they brought him back.

On May 5, Mr. Papale and his family traveled to Portsmouth to donate a $1,900 AED for the community hall. David Paull, a CPR/AED instructor from the American Heart Association, demonstrated how to properly use the machine.

Easy to use

“It’s not hard to use at all,” said Ms. Young. “We have recently taken some CPR classes here and Paul is training us on the AED, but this machine will walk anyone through it. You open it up, you start it up and it will tell you, ‘Do this, do that, put the pads here.’ It shows you everything and it will tell you if the patient needs a shock.”

If anyone suffers a heart attack while at the hall, having the AED there will vastly improve their survival rate, she said. “Portsmouth is a HeartSafe community and this just makes Common Fence Point a heart-safe community also. I think that more and more people are placing AEDs in all kinds of locations,” she said.

Now 62, Ms. Young said she feels great.

“I’m here with full function of my body and mind. It took a while. I’ve made some substantial life changes since my heart attack. I was a smoker; I haven’t smoked for over four years,” said Ms. Young, adding that she’s also better about taking her cholesterol medication.

Getting an AED at the CFPIA Hall was a mission for Ms. Young, who said she feels better knowing that if anyone experiences a cardiac issue there, they’ll have a much better chance of being a survivor — like herself.

“We want to be ready for anything to happen — and it could happen to any of us.”

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.