DOWNS — Mark Humble was about to sit down to dinner last Christmas when he felt as if someone was driving a rod through his chest.
"I said to Heidi 'It's happening again.' She said 'sit down' and called 911," Mark recalled.
"I took a nitro and sat down," Mark said. "I felt lightheaded and clammy. I passed out."
An alarm sounded. Heidi yelled "Don't touch him!" to others gathered for Christmas dinner. When a second alarm sounded, Mark's body lurched forward as if he was doing an abdominal crunch and he grunted.
That's when he received the electrical shock that restored his normal heart rhythm and saved his life.
The shock didn't come from an implantable cardioverter defibrillator. Instead, it came from a wearable defibrillator, called a LifeVest, that he was wearing under his shirt.
"I love this thing," Humble said as he tried on another LifeVest to explain how it works March 2 in his rural Downs home. "If not for my wife, God and LifeVest, I wouldn't be here."
Mark's cardiologist, Dr. Yogesh Agarwal, OSF cardiologist with HeartCare Midwest, agreed.
"If he did not have that device, there is a good chance that Mark might not be alive," Agarwal said.
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While the defibrillator vest is for a limited population, it's life-saving work is huge, said Agarwal and Dr. Dory Jarzabkowski, cardiologist with Advocate Medical Group-Cardiology.
"It can truly be life saving," Jarzabkowski said. "It (defibrillator vest) is becoming more common."
"For anyone who has to wait (for an implantable defibrillator), the LifeVest is the way to go," said Mark, who had an implantable defibrillator placed on Dec. 29.
Defibrillator vests have been around for several years. Jarzabkowski and Agarwal said wearable defibrillators are for a limited number of patients and each doctor prescribes a vest only a few times each year.
The device is for patients at risk of sudden cardiac arrest, when the heart malfunctions and stops beating unexpectedly. Cardiac arrest, according to the American Heart Association, is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart that causes arrhythmia (irregular heart beat). When the heart stops pumping blood, a person becomes unresponsive within seconds and can die within minutes without CPR and defibrillation to restore regular heart beat.
More than 360,000 out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrests occur each year in the United States.
A patient may be at risk for sudden cardiac arrest following a heart attack, before or after bypass surgery or stent placement or if the patient has congestive heart failure.
As doctors determine whether patients should have an implantable defibrillator placed in their chest and as they are adjusting patients' medications, doctors may prescribe a LifeVest.
"It's a bridge," Agarwal said.
"I don't want patients to go home from the hospital without something to protect them," Jarzabkowski said.
Some patients have complained about wearing the LifeVest, which is meant to be worn at all times except during bathing.
"But when their lives are saved by it, they don't complain about wearing it anymore," Jarzabkowski said.
"It looks like a backwards bra with a man purse," Humble said with a smile.
The vest is worn directly on the skin and electrodes in the vest keep track of the patient's heart. An attached monitor collects EKG (electrocardiogram) data from the electrodes.
If a life-threatening arrhythmia is detected, an alarm alerts the patient and bystanders that a shock will be delivered. Then the electrodes release conductive gel and deliver a shock to restore normal heart rhythm.
Mark Humble, 53, works for CAMtek Inc., which manufactures electronic circuit boards in Bloomington. Heidi Humble, 45, is a bus driver for Connect Transit. They have been married 10 years and, between them, have three children and three grandchildren.
"I was a carpenter for 25 years," Mark said. "I've always been active. Until I had my first heart attack, I never spent a day in a hospital. I did smoke cigarettes and I wish I hadn't."
On Nov. 30, he and Heidi were doing house projects when Mark experienced a sudden heaviness and chest pain, then nausea and perspiration. He chewed an aspirin and Heidi drove him to OSF St. Joseph Medical Center, Bloomington.
He had a cardiac catheterization, but because no blockage was found he was put on medications and sent home Dec. 2.
On Dec. 22, he was at work when he felt lightheaded and then experienced sharp chest pain and couldn't breathe. He knew that he was having another heart attack so a co-worker drove him to St. Joe.
At the hospital, he passed out and found out later that he had twice experienced ventricular fibrillation, meaning his heart was quivering instead of pumping blood. His life was saved both times by clinicians using an automated external defibrillator.
He was rushed to the cath lab again but was told his arteries looked fine and was put on arrhythmia medicine.
"I was scared to death," he said. "I didn't want to go home again without knowing what was wrong with me."
A nurse gave him a LifeVest brochure and said "look what we arranged for you to bring home," Mark recalled.
"I read about it," he said. "It made sense. I turned to Heidi and said 'This gives me hope that I'll be fine when I go home.'"
On Christmas Eve, he was fitted for his LifeVest, he and Heidi were trained on its use and they went home.
The next day, the device that Mark nicknamed "Hope" saved his life. Paramedics rushed him to St. Joe where Agarwal took over Mark's case.
Agarwal found buildup in one artery, put a stent in and transferred Mark to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. An electrophysiologist did a series of tests and concluded that Mark needed an implantable defibrillator. It's about the size of a computer mouse and is implanted in his chest.
"These are life-changing but they're also life-saving," Mark said of the defibrillators. He had another heart attack Feb. 9, prompting doctors to again change his medications.
"I went from taking zero medicines Nov. 29 to 14 every day and a couple others as needed," Mark said.
As doctors try to get to the bottom of Mark's problem, he feels comfort in knowing that he has a defibrillator. Meanwhile, he's on a low-sodium diet, does cardiac rehab at St. Joe three times a week and has returned to work.
"There's nothing in my life that hasn't changed," Mark said. "But I have a life."
Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech