Heart attack survivor beats the odds with revolutionary treatment at Westmead Hospital

Heart attack survivor Simeon Schiller with his daughters Natalia and Emelia

Simeon Schiller thought he just had a bad case of the man flu until he started hyperventilating.

The 48-year-old father of three was told he was having a heart attack and whisked to hospital, where he had a stent put in but the worst was yet to come.

“All I remember is falling over and waking up to see the defibrillator paddles on my chest,” Simeon said.

“That was my last memory until I woke up in Westmead Hospital two weeks later.”

On the day he collapsed, Simeon’s heart kept going into a lethal arrhythmia and was effectively in cardiac arrest. He was defibrillated multiple times before he was placed on a form of life support known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation – or ECMO.

That night Simeon underwent a rare, complex heart procedure to treat the source of the arrhythmia – a procedure that could not have occurred without ECMO.  

The machine effectively did the work of Simeon’s heart for two weeks, giving his vital organ time to recover.

Once recovered, he was fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). The device constantly monitors his heart rate and can administer shocks to save him in a medical emergency.

Simeon said the ordeal was a scary time for his family, who at one point were told to say their goodbyes.

“It’s been tough. They’re just happy I’m here,” he said.

ECMO has been around for many years but until now has exclusively been used to support very sick patients in intensive care. In the first wave of the pandemic, one patient at Westmead was on ECMO for an unprecedented seven weeks while her lungs recovered from a severe COVID-19 infection.

Clinical ECMO lead Dr Natalie Kruit

Simeon was one of the first survivors in a new use of ECMO to support the heart in the context of cardiac arrest, a treatment known as ECMO CPR – a treatment that saved Simeon’s life.

Without immediate medical help and even with the use of a defibrillator, only around 10 per cent of heart attack sufferers will survive. In a select group of patients, however, ECMO has been shown to improve cardiac arrest survival to approximately 50 per cent.

This lifesaving and cutting-edge form of support is only available at a few hospitals in NSW. The ECMO CPR program is in its infancy at Westmead, however it has so far saved three lives in the first six months of the program at Westmead Hospital, , including 28-year-old Chaikel Muksin.

Westmead Hospital cardiac anaesthetist and clinical ECMO lead, Dr Natalie Kruit said in the event of a cardiac arrest, the most important thing is immediate intervention.

“Everyone should know how to do CPR.  Every second counts and for every minute a patient is in cardiac arrest, the mortality increases by 2.5 per cent,” Dr Kruit said.

“We encourage every workplace, sporting club and community organisation to purchase a portable defibrillator. Hold a training day so people know how to use it. Devices these days are very simple to use and will talk you through the process.”

It could literally be the difference between life and death in an emergency.”

Simeon has since been slowly recovering from his lengthy hospital stay and has even returned to work.

“This was a big shock for me but my health is slowly improving each day. For me, this is a reminder that sometimes it’s not the flu. If you’re not sure what’s wrong then it’s better to see your doctor,” he said.

Wednesday 29 September is World Heart Day. Created by the World Heart Federation, it’s a day to remind people that cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, is the world’s leading cause of death claiming 18.6 million lives each year, and highlights the actions that individuals can take to prevent and control the disease.

Make a difference now by supporting the work of Westmead Hospital’s anaesthetics department through the Westmead Hospital Foundation.