Aspirus Hospital employee performs CPR on her way to work

Dog delayed her but may’ve led to man in cardiac arrest

Rhinelander’s Gary Zarda was listening to an audiobook called “The Winners” while out for a run on a cool Friday morning in late September when he suddenly collapsed. The 50-year-old was barely visible to rush hour traffic. Lucy Meetz was running late to work at Aspirus Rhinelander Hospital that morning when she saw him lying on the opposite side of the road, about 100 feet away from the intersection of Highway 17 and North Shore Drive.


“I saw legs on the sidewalk and the rest of him was in the long grass on the right side,” Lucy explained.


The surgical first assistant was waiting to turn left but knew she had to see if he needed help. She grew anxious watching vehicle after vehicle pass by, not knowing if she was the only one to see Gary lying there. When the light finally turned green, Lucy made a U-turn and pulled her truck over to the side of the road, opened her door and yelled, but she didn’t get a response.


“I didn’t know if he was sleeping or resting so I grabbed my cellphone and I ran over to him,” she stated. “You could tell that he wasn’t breathing so I checked for a pulse and when I didn’t feel one, I called 911.”


Lucy put the dispatcher on speakerphone and provided their location while performing CPR on Gary. Another woman showed up to assist a short time later and the two of them tag teamed chest compressions and breaths until paramedics arrived and took over. They suspected sudden cardiac arrest and used an automated external defibrillator (AED) to shock him. After a couple of attempts, they continued CPR while transporting Gary to the Aspirus Rhinelander Hospital emergency department which was a block away. He was revived and flown by Aspirus MedEvac to Aspirus Wausau Hospital where he spent five nights. Physicians determined Gary did indeed suffer cardiac arrest which occurs when the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops pumping. He doesn’t remember much from that morning with the exception of one familiar voice.


“The only thing that I know that cut through the hours between my collapse and my being awake at some undetermined point is a moment of my wife Lisa sending love before they put me on a helicopter,” Gary recalled. “The glint of that is something that I will always treasure.”


Gary doesn’t remember hearing Lucy’s voice, or her performing CPR on his chest, but their chance meeting almost didn’t happen. Lucy was running late to work because her dog had an accident in the house and she had to clean it up before leaving. That delay at home may have allowed her to come across the scene at the right place and time to help save Gary’s life.


“I think about that moment,” she said. “What if my dog didn’t have an accident? I probably wouldn’t have seen him lying there.”


“I apparently owe her dog a treat,” Gary replied.


The dog’s accident wasn’t the only great timing for Gary as the timing of his release from Aspirus Wausau Hospital couldn’t have been better. Three days after he returned to Rhinelander, Gary attended his son’s wedding which meant even more for him and his family, knowing what he had just experienced.


“It’s inexpressible, though I have tried,” Gary explained. “I wanted my son’s wedding to be about him, his new wife, and our families, but it was a chance to gather under circumstances that deepened our gratitude for that day. He was kind enough to say some meaningful words during his speech, words that brought on tears from me and others listening.”


Lucy and her boyfriend met Gary and his wife Lisa for an emotional reunion over dinner. “My family calls her my angel and she is,” Gary replied. “I think of her as being as brave as she is kind. Nobody knows, for sure, how they will react in dramatic moments requiring courage. She came to my aid in the midst of it all, had the guts, as well as trained skill, to be there for me and, indirectly, my whole family.”


“His wife called me a hero but I don’t feel like that,” Lucy shared. “I feel like it was my responsibility to help because I know how to do CPR and that’s my instinct. I think everyone should be CPR certified. You might not have to use it but if you do, it might save someone’s life.”


Lucy’s decision to pull over and follow her intuition to perform CPR helped save Gary’s life and now he’s working towards getting the life back he had prior to his cardiac arrest. “I am mostly over physical symptoms and working through anxieties surrounding a near-death experience,” he described. “I am also yearning, a bit, to work toward being fit, again, but I will take my time with it all and want to avoid worrying the people I love, especially my mom and dad, wife, and kids.”


Gary said he’s grateful for Lucy, all professionals involved in his care, his family, friends, and his co-workers from Nicolet College. “The words in cards, messages, and moments in passing have all served as medicine in their own right,” he added.


According to the American Heart Association, about 90 percent of people who experience an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest don’t survive. Thanks to the healthcare he received in Rhinelander and Wausau, and from bystanders like Lucy, Gary’s honored to continue the gift of life.