A ‘stroke of luck’: AED donated to state officer helped save a life during 2019 RAGBRAI

Originally published on August 14, 2020 by Hillary Ojeda in the Iowa City Press-Citizen (click here to view)

If it weren’t for decisions made by members of the Iowa City Noon Rotary Club and a handful of first responders, Greg Abbey says he wouldn’t be alive today.

Last summer, the Washington state resident was riding along RAGBRAI’s route near Centerville when he had a heart attack.

He’d been hit, accidentally, by a cyclist earlier that morning and had ridden 83 miles in blistering July 24 heat.

“I was pretty cooked, and the feeling of a lump in my chest caused me to pull over to step off my bike,” he told the Iowa City Press-Citizen. He said he barely remembers anything from the rest of the day.

Two off-duty firemen who were riding the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa saw Abbey go down and quickly began CPR.

“What a stroke of luck to have a pair of EMTs moments away just as you have a heart attack,” Abbey recalled. The firemen were Ty and Ryan Wheeler of central Iowa’s Johnston-Grimes Fire Department.

Further down the road, Iowa State Patrol Trooper Bob Conrad was directing traffic when a bicyclist rode up and told him someone was suffering a heart attack. Conrad just happened to be one of five state troopers who are equipped AEDs in the state.

Conrad and another patrol officer made their way through about a mile of cyclists to find Abbey and the Wheelers. It had been about five to 10 minutes, and the pair were still administering CPR.

Conrad used the AED first to check for a heart rate, but there wasn’t one. Next, he shocked Abbey, but still detected no heart rate. The Wheelers resumed their CPR efforts, but still, the AED detected no heart rate.

The trio repeated the shock and CPR combination a second time, finally finding they were able to detect a pulse before administering a third shock.

Conrad said a CARE Ambulance arrived at about that time and took Abbey to a Centerville hospital. From there, he was taken by helicopter to MercyOne Iowa’s Heart Center in Des Moines.

“We were in the right place at the right time,” Conrad said. “And electricity does amazing things.”

It was the first time Conrad had used the AED since it had been donated to the department years ago.

Conrad said the AED was purchased through fundraising efforts by the Iowa City Noon Rotary Club and a grant from the Iowa Department of Public Health to donate to law enforcement agencies.

“The Rotary was key in raising the extra funds to buy these,” he said.

The Monday after his heart attack, Conrad and another trooper visited Abbey in the hospital.

To thank the Rotary club, Abbey sent a letter to Barbara Thomas, the club’s president, exactly one year after the AED had been used to save him. Thomas said she was “tearing up” as she read the letter last month.

She invited Abbey to read the letter to the club’s members during their weekly Zoom meeting on July 30.

“[T]here is no better reason, no better reminder as to why we are Rotarians and the impact we can have,” she told the group during the meeting.

She added that it’s not often that they get to see the impact of their work.

“Sometimes, that impact is down the road, like with Greg’s story, and so it’s wonderful that we’ve been given this gift — that this story has come back to us and we’ve been able to hear from Greg.”

As there’s been turnover among the group’s membership and other projects over the years, Thomas said she and other members aren’t sure exactly when the rotary donated the AED to Conrad. The officer guessed it was about 15 years ago, adding that it’s on its last battery.

Each device costs about $1,500 to $2,000, which can be expensive for law enforcement agencies and nonprofits to maintain.

“You just don’t always have enough money to go around,” Conrad said. “We wouldn’t have had these if it weren’t for the forethought of the Noon Rotary and the Iowa Department of Public Health grant back in the day.”

By the end of next year, however, Conrad said a team among the Iowa Department of Public Health, the Iowa Department of Public Safety and Iowa State Patrol hopes to have 4,200 AED units distributed among law enforcement agencies statewide.

“Every trooper car will have an AED when this is done, along with any agency that has a need or desire to have an AED,” he said.

He said the funding became available through a donation by the Helmsley Foundation.

“Every incident like this shows the need,” Conrad said.

The Iowa City Noon Rotary Club is also continuing its effort to supply AEDs to local organizations and law enforcement through the newly launched Rotary Kerber HeartSafe Community Campaign.

Jim Merchant, emeritus dean of the University of Iowa College of Public Health, is leading the initiative.

So far, program volunteers have purchased five AEDs and trained more than 100 Rotarians and other members of the community on how to use them. They also plan to develop an app that would map where local AEDs are installed.

“I am honored to be the person who had the AED and had the ability to save someone’s life,” Conrad said. “It truly is making a difference.”

So far this year, Abbey has traveled at least 1,500 miles on his bike.

“I think I’m in better shape now,” he said on the phone while sitting in his Edmonds home, just outside of Seattle.

He works for Town & Country Markets grocery store and has two daughters, Erin and Anna. Anna flew to Des Moines after his heart attack and helped him recover.

He said he was in extraordinary pain.

Abbey had to wait at least three weeks before he could fly home, so they rented a hotel in Des Moines for several days. Friends from Kansas City, who’d invited him to join them on RAGBRAI last year, then picked him up and took him to their home, where he rested before returning home.

He said he was prepared to participate in this year’s RAGBRAI before it was canceled because of the pandemic.

Abbey said he was looking forward to riding through the small towns, getting invited to jump into ponds in the yards of friendly Iowans, and watching as masses of cyclists pull-over for a 7:30 a.m. beer-stop.

“I really enjoyed Iowa,” he said. “It was a real hoot.”