Eric Vogen

On Father's Day 2007, I fell down dead just feet from the finish line of the Latta Plantation Triathlon. I don't mean that I was exhausted. I mean my heart stopped beating. An EMT, one of eight who worked to revive me, recalls my last breath. I only remember a few seconds of dizziness and then darkness.

I was asymptomatic for a heart problem I had most of my life. It wasn't until I went to a doctor 6 years ago for a neck ache that I found out I had a leaking heart valve. My doctor said he could hear it without a stethoscope and that if I didn't get it fixed, I was looking at death before 40. Since I'd been a runner since high school, I was surprised. Throughout my 20s, I ran. I love to run. I especially love to run on the beach. The feel of sand beneath my feet, the sound of waves. But in my late 20s, I started to slow down. I started getting tired. I stopped running. Though I wasn't yet 30, I figured I was just getting old. By my mid 30s, I was sleeping round the clock, lethargic when I was awake. It didn't feel right, but until that doctor noticed something he wasn't even looking for, it didn't occur to me anything could be wrong.

The Cleveland Clinic is a forerunner and nationally recognized expert institution for cardiac surgery. Doctors there repaired my leaking valve and told me I was lucky. Though my heart had expanded to double its normal size, the surgery enabled it to come back to normal. I wouldn't have permanent damage. After the surgery, I could barely walk, but I wanted back to running. It took a few months for my energy to come back, but as I recovered, I made a goal to run a triathlon within a year of my surgery. And I did.

I started doing a triathlon a year. And though I wasn't particularly competitive, I received decent scores in the pack and I enjoyed it. I even did a team triathlon in Australia last year.

But going into the 2007 season, my training was interrupted. My wife and I had our first child, I became a little out of shape and I once again stopped running. But I'd done a marathon without training once. I still felt like that same guy. Even if I was more than 20 years older.

I have an abiding faith in God, an active God who takes an interest in people's lives. But just because I believe God could send me a message doesn't guarantee I'm going to listen to Him any more than I'm going to listen to my wife. I wasn't hearing either of them. I had plenty of reasons and opportunity not to go that day. I ate a good breakfast of raspberries, nectarines and cereal, loaded my car and headed out with barely enough time to get set up, strap a water bottle on my bike. The half-mile swim portion went really well, my fastest time ever. I felt really good. I jumped on my bike and took off for the 17-mile ride, without thinking about drinking because I was still a little blurry and tired from the last few days. Halfway through I drank a protein smoothie, though what I needed was fluids, not protein. This may have been part of the problem, but more likely the electrolytes helped me get to the finish line, which contributed to saving my life. Later, as I drank a little water and still felt pretty good. I joked around with the policeman, asking if they'd have to give me a ticket for going too fast.

I was still in a good mood on the run, still feeling fine. I was going at a light run. It was only three miles. I teased a pair of girls who would pass me and then I would pass. I told them my goal was to beat them. Just as I neared the three-mile marker, the finish line, I saw an EMT truck next to me. I joked to myself, "Well, I guess I won't be needin' them today!" Within 10 seconds of that thought, I was dizzy. Two seconds after registering that I was dizzy, before I could even analyze why I might be dizzy, I went down. I don't remember falling. The next thing I remember I was in the ambulance, strapped down. I wanted to get up. It seemed very important that I get up. As if I had important things to do. My vision was blurry, I was disoriented, and I was trying with all my might to focus on the eyes of the emergency people. I was saying I just need to get up; I need to get something to drink. I was obviously dehydrated. Then I threw up a few times and figured something happened to me so I asked. The EMTs said that from the Emergency truck, they saw me fall. I fell on the best possible part of the trail — the pavement right near finish line. I blacked out before I fell; I didn't forget the memory. This would become important in deciding any damage caused by my downtime, The EMTs came running over within a minute. A large strong female EMT tried hitting me on my chest hard as could. But she couldn't get a pulse, hardly. I was barely breathing. She said I'd just taken my last breath. The EMTs got the defibrillator and shocked me and got rhythm back. I started to breathe again, so I didn't need oxygen. I didn't have brain damage (though my wife might not agree). I'd gone into ventricular fibrillation, which rarely reverses spontaneously. The cardiac output goes to zero, and the person has only minutes to live without intervention. Even with shocking with a defibrillator, the heart does not always come out. That's why there's only a 2 percent survival rate. There is such a narrow window for response time and a medical intervention is necessary, that circumstances need to be just right for a positive outcome. Even if I'd fallen a few yards away, where the path was still in a wooded area, I wouldn't have made it. If the truck had been parked at the starting line, where it had been parked every year prior to this one, I wouldn't have made it. If the truck hadn't been equipped with a defibrillator, I wouldn't have made it. If I had to go into ventricular fibrillation, this was certainly the time and place to do so. The best of a bad situation. I call that a miracle. One of the 8 techs who saved me is the Community Relations Coordinator for Mecklenburg EMS. His goal is to get defibrillators all over the place. Mine, too.

In the hospital, the doctors tried to recreate the "event," the fibrillation. They ran different sorts of tests to try to mimic what my body was going through at the time I collapsed. In essence, through adrenaline, I did another triathlon, this time from a hospital bed. But my heart stayed rhythmic. The doctors can't say for sure why I died. Pushing my 41-year-old body so suddenly after months of inactivity, that played a part. Maybe my heart history. Nobody knows. And though the doctors didn't "think" I would drop again, they did further extensive tests and they installed a defibrillator in my chest. People ask me how my death changed my life. They wonder if I found my purpose. But I knew my purpose before. I think God just provided a way to bail me out so I could continue with my purpose. The Holy Spirit was giving me clues right and left before that race; God was trying to keep me out of trouble. But He didn't strike me down for my inattention. He rearranged the circumstances to my best advantage while still allowing me to exercise my own free will. He did just enough to grab my attention. I pay more attention now. I try to listen a lot more through God's word, Jesus' example and leadings, the Holy Spirit's messages throughout the day, and to those whom are close to me and praying for me.

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