'A walking miracle' — Habits, diet first changes after massive heart attack
By Shavonne Potts
David Sells has a goal — to return to work in a few days. It was only weeks ago that he couldn’t walk. And a few months ago he was clinically dead.
In August, Sells, 48, suffered a massive heart attack while in Davie County training bloodhounds that track fugitives for the Department of Corrections.
“I was in the woods about a half a mile in when I started to feel sick to my stomach,” he said.
Alone in the woods, Sells had just enough time to radio to his partner, Dale Robertson, who used his bloodhound to track Sells’ location in the woods.
Sells had barely walked out of the woods when he collapsed. He was experiencing cardiogenic shock — when the heart shuts down.
Sells’ co-workers and later emergency workers performed CPR. Sells was resuscitated three times. Each time he was unconscious about 45 minutes.
He suffered what is known in medical circles as the “widow maker,” because the majority of the people who have this type of heart attack do not survive.
He can offer no details from that day in the woods or the day before.
“I still don’t remember what happened,” he said.
A week after his heart attack, Sells awoke in the cardiac care unit at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem.
“He is a walking miracle. He was a guy who had no warning signs and symptoms until his sudden death,” said Dr. Tim Smith, Sells’ cardiologist at Baptist.
Typically, there are warning signs, he said.
A small percentage of people actually survive the same type of heart attack, Smith said.
“He not only had cardiac death, but acute respiratory distress syndrome (a lung condition) and seizures because of a lack of oxygen,” Smith said.
Cardiac death is an unexpected death due to cardiac causes.
Essentially, plaque ruptured in an artery and the body’s response is to clot and that clot caused a heart attack, Smith said.
Since Sells received chest compression for so long, about 21/2 hours, he had lung and kidney failure.
His blood pressure also dropped and he had bleeding in his lungs.
“Look at all the odds. Every odd should have been pointing toward death,” Smith said.
As Sells slowly recovers, his kidney function has returned to normal. He has fought off a bout with pneumonia.
Smith hopes there are no lasting effects since Sells was unconscious so long.
And though Sells wants to get back to work quickly, Smith expects his patient to be back on the job at the beginning of the year.
Sells, who is also the battalion chief for the Landis Fire Department, took a leave of absence from work.
Sells’ wife, Katie, took a leave of absence from her job at Piedmont Correctional Institute to be by his side.
“She has been here every step of the way,” Sells said.
Katie had just left work early when she received a phone call from David’s sister.
“She said they were putting him in a helicopter,” Katie said.
Katie’s cell phone died as she rushed to be with him. She found out her husband was being taken by ambulance to Winston-Salem.
“A doctor said they were doing everything they could,” she said.
By the early afternoon, Katie was told if her husband made it through the night, he might have a chance of survival.
“It was very emotional. All I could do was cry,” she said.
He was placed into a medically induced coma.
Doctors prepared Katie for the worst, which meant if her husband of just a year lived, he might not be able to walk, talk, or remember her.
Doctors later said if Sells made it a full 24 hours, he had a better chance at survival.
“That was the longest 24 hours of my life,” she said.
Katie was finally told the news she had been waiting to hear — “He would make it.”
After Sells was taken out of his medically induced coma, he discovered he couldn’t walk and he was in kidney failure.
He was placed on dialysis until his normal kidney function returned.
Sells regained full use of his legs and began physical therapy about a month ago.
“He beat the odds of everything. He is a miracle,” Katie said.
She was unable to embrace her husband for weeks, Katie said, but once he was released from the hospital she could hug him.
“There was a sense it would all be all right then,” she said.
Sells is now on a low sodium diet, which takes some getting use to, he said.
Before his heart attack, diet was not a concern.
“I ate what I wanted. With my job, I ate a lot of fast food because we’re on the road a lot,” he said.
For the rest of his life, Sells has to maintain a low sodium diet and can only have less than a tenth of an ounce a day. He can eat red meat, occasionally, but never fried foods.
Sells now eats a lot of turkey and vegetables. He can only eat fresh or frozen vegetables since canned food has too much salt, he said.
Sells has physical therapy three days a week at the Health and Fitness Institute, a division of Carolinas Medical Center-NorthEast in Concord.
The overall goal, said fitness institute manager Mike Lippard, is to “get back to physical prowess, strengthen his heart and reduce further risks.”
The institute staff monitors Sells’ heart and he receives a physical therapy plan from an exercise physiologist.
Staff members also discuss nutrition goals and daily living, Lippard said.
In additional to the staff goals, Sells pushes himself to attain his own set of goals.
“I work a littler harder than the last time,” he said of his exercise program.
He credits his co-worker, the Davie County Rescue Squad, the Davie County Sheriff’s Office, the medical flight crew and his doctor for saving his life. “I want to thank everybody who helped me,” Sells said.
His partner was the first to perform CPR along with the rescue squad.
“I credit him with saving my life,” Sells said of Robertson.
The sheriff’s office led the ambulance through traffic when Sells was not stable enough to be airlifted to the hospital.
The crew continued chest compressions inside the ambulance as it sped down the highway.
His doctor, Sells said, “wasn’t going to let me die.”
He’s also had support from his sons Devin and Jeremy as well as other family, co-workers, his church family and even strangers.
“I feel a whole lot stronger,” Sells said.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.
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