Natchez native brings runner back to life

Published 11:17 am Thursday, November 19, 2009

JONESBORO, Ark. — Some people might say the stars were aligned on Nov. 7, but William “Bill” Zahler of Panama City, Fla., attributes his good fortune to the Lord.

The short version of Zahler’s story is that he ran a marathon in Wynne, suffered a heart attack after crossing the finish line, taking third place in his division, died for 40 minutes and was brought back to life by the actions of emergency responders on the scene and a team at St. Bernards Medical Center trained in therapeutic hypothermia.

The longer version started a couple of months ago when Zahler, 67, and two running partners were looking for a race.

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He had been stationed at the former Blytheville Air Force Base clinic as chief of mental health from 1976-78, he said. He retired in 1996, but he’s always been health conscious and runs 35 miles per week.

Five steps after the completion of the 26.2-mile race, Zahler fell out with ventricular fibrillation arrest, said Dr. Barry Tedder, the leader of the team that treated the Akron, Ohio, native after he arrived by medical helicopter at the Jonesboro hospital.

Emergency personnel on the scene at the race started cardiopulmonary resuscitation and inserted a tube so the patient could breathe, the physician said. At the hospital emergency room in Wynne, Zahler was shocked twice, but that failed to start his heart beating again, Tedder said. There personnel packed his armpits and groin area with ice in an effort to start the cooling process, which would be completed at St. Bernards.

Once at St. Bernards, the medical team started an intravenous infusion of iced saline. Zahler was sandwiched between cooling blankets. Team members knew exactly what to do because an emergency room-cath lab committee at St. Bernards had been studying research from Europe and Australia beginning about six months ago, and Tedder had been trained in therapeutic hypothermia. Plus, the equipment was in place at the Heart Care Center in the hospital.

“This was our first real cardiac arrest case,” Tedder said. “It was unbelievable results. Without a pulse for 10 to 15 minutes, the chance of waking up is low. Within 5 to 10 minutes, the change of waking up is good.”

Zahler had no pulse for 38 to 45 minutes and was kept alive by CPR so some blood could flow to the brain.

With the lack of oxygen to the brain, a patient may never wake up, even though the heartbeat and pulse are OK, he said. The doctor said he learned that by lowering the body temperature to 89 or 93 degrees for 12 to 24 hours, there would be a better chance of patients waking up.

“The brain cells don’t get enough oxygen and don’t recover. This slows the metabolic rate of brain cells,” he said.

By using the cooling method, the chance of meaningful survival jumps from 25 percent to 50 to 60 percent, Tedder said, and that means the brain is not injured so much.

“They’re not dead until they’re warm dead,” he said.

Tedder likened the cooling method to a person who is revived after drowning in cold water. The patient is kept cold for 24 hours and rewarmed slowly, while being sedated on anesthesia.

Zahler had a 95 percent blockage in a vessel, and the surgeon inserted a stent inside the vessel. Heartwise, he’s fine, Tedder said.

He was expected to be released from St. Bernards today.

Zahler has some issues with short-term memory loss. He doesn’t remember the drive from Florida to Arkansas, and he doesn’t recall any of the race.

“I’m pleased and shocked he did so well,” Tedder said.

Zahler credits his survival to the Lord.

“I’m a Christian man. Jesus wasn’t ready to take me home,” he said. “The Lord has further plans for me. That’s what I believe.”

Zahler said he expects he will share the experience and the lessons learned with others, perhaps in the class about health he helps teach at his church. He also said he plans to pay more attention to his health, even though he thought he was doing OK, running 35 miles per week and working out in the gym a couple times a week, he said.

“You can’t violate God’s natural laws and get away with it for very long,” he said.

Like most people, Zahler said he knows better than to eat a sleeve of Oreo cookies, but sometimes he does it anyway.

Tedder is a Natchez native. He is the son of the late Hugh Tedder Sr. He also has a brother, Hugh Tedder Jr., living in Jackson.

His mother Camille Tedder and brother Ralph Tedder are Natchez residents.