It was just like any other day for Stefan Willis.
He’d gone to work as a university teacher, spent time with his wife Jemima and their children and cooked spaghetti bolognaise for dinner.
The 43-year-old went to sleep feeling normal – but during the night on 15 October 2016, everything changed. He had a sudden, unexpected cardiac arrest in his sleep.
It’s only thanks to the quick thinking actions of his wife that he survived.
Jemima called the ambulance and was guided through giving CPR as his heart stopped beating and he stopped breathing for 25 minutes.
Stefan was in a coma for five days after suffering a stroke and a minor brain injury.
He had been a keen cyclist before the cardiac arrest, cycling up to 1000km a month and Jemima was worried he’d never be able to do the things he loves again.
But now three years on, Stefan has made incredible progress and for the third year, he is cycling 54 miles for the British Heart Foundation next month for the London to Brighton Bike Ride.
The dad-of-three, from London, explains: ‘I never had any health issues. There was no indication that anything was wrong with my heart so my sudden cardiac arrest was a huge shock to myself and my family.
‘I have no recollection of what happened – all I know is that I went to sleep in my bed and woke up five days later in King’s hospital.
‘Without Jemima, I wouldn’t be here. There is no other way it could’ve gone other than death if she hadn’t been so brave.’
On that day, Jemima says everything seemed normal with her husband before they went to sleep, with them discussing their plans for the weekend.
At 2am, their son woke up and she went to check on him. Usually, she would fall asleep with him but says for some reason, that night she could not get comfortable, so when he had settled, she went back to her own bed.
45 minutes later, she was woken by Stefan making a strange noise and initially she thought he was snoring.
She says: ‘At first I thought he was snoring, and then I realised he didn’t snore, so I thought he was having a bad dream.
‘I put my hand on his arm and tried to reassure him but then I realised his skin felt really clammy and the noises were getting worse.
‘The only sound I can compare it to was a donkey braying. When he didn’t reply to me and I realised he wasn’t waking up, I turned the light on and instantly knew something was wrong.
‘I went into survival mode. I ran downstairs and got my mobile phone and called for an ambulance.
‘I think I reacted pretty quickly as the situation felt very serious. I don’t know why but I just knew something awful was happening.’
Jemima was given instructions over the phone on how to do CPR to keep her husband alive until the paramedics arrived.
When they arrived they shocked him eight times with a defibrillator to try to restart his heart.
He was rushed to hospital and placed in an induced coma for five days but the cardiac arrest had caused a stroke and damage to his brain.
His medical team warned his family that they would have to wait and see how much damage had been done.
Jemima says: ‘I spent five days having conversations with specialists, nurses and doctors about every possibility under the sun. However, until someone actually wakes up there is no guarantee.
‘I did know that if Stef couldn’t ride his bicycle or have his freedom and independence, he’d be totally miserable.
‘The day he came round was amazing but also really scary as no one knew how much damage had happened to his body or his brain.
‘It was amazing to see him try to get off the hospital bed, as well as realising that he still remembered who I was and that he had a family.
‘Over the coming days, I felt like I was on high alert, looking for things that might be different about him.’
Stefan was fitted with an S-ICD – a mini defibrillator inserted into the chest to give the heart shocks should it go into an abnormal rhythm, to protect him from any future cardiac arrest.
He left hospital after three weeks but doctors still aren’t sure what caused the cardiac arrest and he is still undergoing screening to try to find out why.
Stefan said: ‘When I got home, a tough part of my recovery was from the S-ICD surgery. I found it unmanageable and as I was still really struggling to come to terms with what had happened.
‘I couldn’t even feel grateful for it. I just wanted to get back to feeling like me as soon as possible – I didn’t fully comprehend what I had just been through.’
Jemima adds that is was hard for her to sleep after what happened: ‘I would wake throughout the night to check he was still alive, despite knowing he now has his device.’
Stefan says he was in denial about what happened until he saw the TV show 24 hours in A&E and saw another man who had a cardiac arrest.
He said: ‘I saw the reality of how cardiac arrests are treated. So many staff are involved, so much equipment attached to the patient and the family were in so much shock.
‘This brought it all home for me – what I had been through, my brush with death and what my poor wife, family and friends had experienced.
‘This is when my wife first admitted to me that at the time, the doctors had told her that I was the most ill person in the hospital. I realised how lucky I had been and the enormity of the situation.’
As he came to terms with what happened, Stefan also wanted to do as much as he could to recover – and he turned back to cycling.
How to give CPR
- Check the person over. If they are not responsive and not breathing, then their heart has stopped working and they are having a cardiac arrest.
- Now, call 999. Then you do hands-only CPR.
- Lock your fingers together, knuckles up. Then push down, right on the sovereign. Push down five or six centimetres. That’s about two inches.
- Push hard and fast about two times a second, like to the beat of Stayin’ Alive. Don’t worry about hurting someone. A cracked rib can be mended – just concentrate on saving a life.
- Keep this up until the ambulance arrives.
British Heart Foundation
He started with short distances and set goals to motivate himself.
He explains: ‘During my first ride, after two miles, I stopped at a cyclist café, head to toe in all my gear so that people might think I had just ridden 60 miles. This is what helped make me feel like me, even if it was a little silly.
‘It was very important to me that I got back on my bike as soon as I could.
‘As I had completed the London to Brighton Bike Ride four times prior to my heart stopping, I thought this 54 mile bike ride challenge that I knew and loved would be a fantastic goal to aim for and help me to recover.
‘I have a strong emotional attachment to Brighton and the London to Brighton Bike Ride – the fact that it is organised by and raises money for the British Heart Foundation just seemed perfect.’
Although still nervous after everything that happened, Jemima wanted to support him as he got back to what he loved.
‘Stef has never been someone who lets anything stand in his way, so it was quite clear that he was going to try and get back to normal life as quickly as possible,’ she says.
‘When he said he was getting back on his bicycle and was going out on his own, I knew this was a big deal for him and a sign that he was back.
‘It’s hard not to worry after what we went through, but knowing things could have been so different made the recovery process much easier.’
Stefan completed his first London to Brighton Bike Ride for the British Heart Foundation six months after his cardiac arrest and crossed the finish line in just over three hours.
After that, he set out to do the bike ride every year to continue raising money for the BHF, who fund research into heart diseases.
He wants to raise awareness of the work the charity does, as well as encouraging others to learn emergency first aid to help anyone who suddenly has a cardiac arrest.
He adds: ‘I feel truly blessed to have Jemima and would encourage as many people as possible to learn CPR to help more people who have cardiac arrests outside of hospital walls.
‘Sometimes I look at my one year old son and think; “You were so very nearly not here”. This makes me reflect on what happened but also makes me feel incredibly grateful. It’s heart breaking to think how close I was to leaving my wife and children – I know just how lucky I am.’
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