One more compression, one more chance
April 4 was just an ordinary day for Dirk Moffatt. The Eagle River resident was driving with a friend and co-worker on the stretch of highway between Mirror Lake and Thunderbird Falls.
Then, in an instant, his life changed.
In fact, it momentarily halted.
Moffatt, in his early 40s, suffered an unexpected cardiac arrest. He experienced no warning signs.
“I felt fine,” he said. “I may have had a heart ache but I attributed that to heartburn.”
According to Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department rescue workers, Moffatt’s heart stopped for almost 10 minutes.
Moffatt remembers none of it, not the blacking out or the CPR that was immediately started by his friend who had been driving the car, not the by-passers who stopped to help or the arrival of rescue workers or even the ambulance ride to the hospital.
“I don’t remember when the lights went out,” he said.
What he does remember is waking up in a bed at Alaska Regional Hospital, hours later.
“I felt like I had been in a fight and someone had pounded my chest,” he said.
But before that, in that dark and alone time that he can’t remember, as he hovered between life and death, a lot was happening.
According to CVFD assistant chief Clifton Dalton, each moment, each second, was critical to Moffatt survival.
Luckily, Moffatt’s friend knew CPR and began to administer it immediately. Others stopped and helped, and CVFD arrived within minutes, utilizing the Lucas CPR device, a manual chest compression system geared to help sustain blood circulation.
Moffatt was quickly moved to an ambulance where he was incubated and given epi (epinephrine injection). Rescue personnel were able to get a pulse back after about five minutes.
“It’s a testament to early access to 911, early access to CPR, early citizen CPR,” Dalton said. “He hit it on a perfect day.”
According to Dalton, only one to two percent of those who receive CPR make a full recovery.
“It’s rare for one to be able to walk out of the hospital,” he said.
This, he explained, is because it takes approximately 15 seconds of CPR before blood flow reaches the brain. Yet if you stop, even for a second, it will take another 15 seconds to get blood back to the brain again.
“You can get a pulse back but the brain damage is usually too severe,” he said.
Mattoff was one of the lucky ones. After spending 11 days in the hospital, he was discharged with no neurological defects.
CVFD paramedic James Hales remembers that incidence vividly.
“It’s a rewarding experience when you get to see someone recover,” he said. “It’s one of the things that keeps me doing this.”
Moffatt attended the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department meeting with his mother on May 28, where he presented a lifesaving award to those who assisted in his rescue.
Later, he stood outside beside the fire engine and talked about what had happened.
“No one thinks they’ll have a heart attack,” he said. “We all think we’re invincible.”
He was working as a legislative staffer and political consultant at the time and was driving to an event with a friend.
“If I hadn’t been in the car with my friend or if I had been driving,” he said. “I feel bad that I put him through such an ordeal. I know it must have been stressful.”
Coming so close to death has changed him. He doesn’t feel a need to conquer mountains or cross items off his bucket list. He isn’t even sure he has a bucket list.
What he wants now is a simple: Family, love, togetherness.
“I think about things now like, am I going to get married and have kids, and all the things you put off. You think about all the things you want to accomplish,” he added. “It’s like a second lease on life.”
He also feels a suspended disbelief that it really happened, that he really came so close to death.
Yet the story curves full circle. Moffatt’s late father was a volunteer fireman at the Chugiak station. That was back before cell phones, when all of the houses were wired to main emergency phone system.
“I remember the call coming in and my dad running out of the house with all of his gear on and going to a call,” he said.
He paused for a moment.
“I haven’t been back here to the station since I was five.”