Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Ray Henderson believes in miracles.
Fifteen months after the Rio Rancho High School teacher had a heart attack with a 5% chance of survival, he says he can’t emphasize enough how important it is in life to simply slow down.
“I always use the #itsthelittlethings …” he said. “Hearing (the birds), touching my wife’s hand … going places with my family … these are the thing that are so important.” His voice trails off. “That other stuff … not important.”
While he says he has yet to answer the question of “how has this changed things?” he says he has emerged with a heightened sense of gratitude, along with determination to “give back.”
The 10th Annual Project Heart Start Day is June 15 at locations in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Los Lunas. Ray, his wife, Norma, and other members of the family have become ambassadors of sorts, advocating for as many people to learn the technique as possible.
The 58-year-old’s journey back from a heart attack that has, in part, led to more than 1,300 students in Rio Rancho schools being trained in CPR began the evening of Feb. 21, 2018.
“We went to bed about 9 and shortly after Ray said, ‘I feel funny,’ and he kept tapping his chest,” Norma said. He got up and went to the bathroom. “All of the sudden, he’s vomiting violently.”
Within minutes, Ray had passed out, fallen, turned blue and stopped breathing.
Little did the Hendersons know this would only be the beginning of a fight that included more than 100 days in a hospital and a cascade of life-threatening complications, including gout, two bouts of pneumonia and TEN (toxic epidermal necrolysis).
With all the advanced medical care he would get in that three months, “his survival most certainly started with this lady,” says Lt. Ken Bond as he puts his arm around Norma’s shoulder. Bond was on an overtime shift at Bernalillo County Fire Department’s Johnny Walker Fire Station the night Ray had his heart attack.
“I didn’t know CPR,” Norma interjects in a near-whisper into Bond’s recollections.
When Norma first called 911, she got an “all circuits are busy” recording. Acting on “what I thought I should do,” she checked his airway and began chest compressions. About 10 minutes later, a 911 operator helped her continue.
For a half-hour.
As Bond and the others on the rescue crew arrived – the Hendersons live minutes from the Sandia Park fire station – he said the crew found a patient in a condition few live long enough even to be loaded into the ambulance.
“Honestly, as we started to assess him and found he was in V-fib (when the heart quivers instead of pumping) … well that’s never a good sign.”
Seven treatments with a defibrillator later, Bond and his crew delivered Ray (with a pulse) to Presbyterian Hospital.
Henderson’s daughter, Alexis, picks up the story.
“After I got the call at about 10:30, it was a whirl … phone calls, people flew in. We were trying to prepare for him to die,” she said. Last rites were administered.
In the next few days, while Ray lay in a medically induced coma and was being kept alive by an advanced life-support machine, doctors and other medical staff were planning for a heart transplant.
Some of that preparation was to make sure his brain was still functioning, so they systematically turned over life systems to Ray’s body. He responded in spades by recognizing every family member in the room and tried to speak.
“People don’t come off that machine unless they either get a new heart or die,” Bond said.
Norma recalls listening in disbelief as cardiologist Dr. Raymond Yau told her that Ray no longer needed a heart transplant.
And, while Ray’s medical journey was far from over, Yau called him “one in a million.”
What followed was a series of setbacks, one of which was a case of toxic epidermal necrolysis, a severe skin condition that results in blistering and peeling and can lead to sepsis and multiple organ failure. The cause of the syndrome is often a drug reaction.
Treatment in the burn unit was extremely painful, Ray says, and what little he remembers of his months in the hospital involve that treatment and the nightmares he had as a result of the heavy pain-relieving medication he was taking.
“As hard as that first couple of weeks were,” Alexis says, “it was nothing compared to those nights.”
Again, Ray beat the odds.
While Ray’s medical story played out, across town in Rio Rancho his students stood watch and responded with a #hendo-strong campaign and reached out to Norma to make sure students and staff were updated on his condition.
“Mr. H is very popular at school,” said Ashley Hildebrand, who was a senior and co-president of DECA at the time. “None of us knew if he was coming back. So we all got super excited when he showed up and said, ‘We’re doing it.’ ”
“Doing it,” as it turns out, is training as many students in compression-only CPR as possible. Hildebrand said it was clear when “Mr. H” returned to his duties as DECA adviser and marketing teacher for the 2018-19 school year – just three months after being released from the hospital – that he was on a mission to normalize training for the simple method that saved his life (the first time).
Norma and the rest of the Henderson family learned CPR at last year’s Project Heart Start Day.
All freshmen at Rio Rancho High School have been trained along with the school’s seven DECA classes and students who attended a state DECA gathering. DECA is a national organization that prepares students for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management.
The club has plans to take it to other high schools in Albuquerque and to push to make CPR a graduation requirement.
Students, Hildebrand said, have been enthusiastic about learning CPR and making sure training is available to more people.
“His story makes it real,” Hildebrand said.