Weather Forecast


Defibrillator and quick action save a life at local YMCA

Jerry Panning doesn't care to think about what would have happened if he had chosen to go jogging outside the morning of May 3.

In all likelihood, he wouldn't be here to tell his story.

As it happened, the 62-year-old North Hudson resident went to St. Croix Valley YMCA for his workout - and four people and an automated external defibrillator saved his life.

Panning had just slowed to a walk on the YMCA's running track when he suddenly felt faint, reached for a handrail, and then collapsed face-first onto the track.

Mary Matthewson, a former nurse, was on a treadmill next to the track and rushed to where Panning lay when she saw him go down. Dr. Jeff Hitchcock, a Hudson dentist, was half a lap behind Panning on the track and arrived on the scene seconds later.

They rolled Panning over and saw that he was semi-conscious and gasping for breath. Hitchcock sprinted for the defibrillator on the wall of the nearby aerobic exercise machine room. Matthewson yelled for someone to call 911.

Kay Jordt, the Y's health and wellness director got on the phone, while Trevor Kodesh, the wellness coordinator, joined Matthewson and Hitchcock (who had already returned with the defibrillator) at Panning's side.

"Everything was fast. It seemed long, but it was quick," Jordt, six months pregnant, remembers.

The rescuers reunited at the YMCA on Friday to recount the events with Panning and receive Great Save Awards from St. Croix Emergency Medical Services, the local ambulance service.

Matthewson said Panning didn't have a pulse when they turned him over, but was still gasping for air.

"I didn't know if maybe he was having a seizure, so I was kind of waiting for something else to happen," she said. "And then he just quit breathing and turned purple, right then. I said, somebody's going to have to breath for him, and Jeff jumped in."

Matthewson gave Panning three or four chest compressions, and then Hitchcock blew air into his lungs. Meanwhile, Kodesh had raised Panning's shirt and was attaching the defibrillator pads to Panning's chest.

"It was so cool, because you push the button and the machine talks to you," Matthewson said.

The machine first announced that it was analyzing the patient, and then told them to stand back while it applied the shock.

"You could hear it rev up and then shock you," Matthewson informed Panning. "I was reaching down to feel for a pulse and it said, 'Do not touch the patient.'"

She could laugh about it now.

The 15 seconds that the defibrillator spent reassessing Panning's heart activity seemed like a long time, Matthewson said. When she could touch him again, she felt a faint pulse, then "boom, boom, boom."

Panning was back among the living. The time that elapsed between when Panning fell and when he was revived was about 90 seconds.

The retired railroad terminal manager and new village board trustee says it was a surreal experience.

"Once the lights go out and you're revived, you have a different outlook on life," he said.

Panning's rescuers said he was embarrassed and wanted to get up and leave when he came to.

Instead, the EMS crew that had arrived loaded him onto an ambulance and took him to Hudson Hospital. From there, he was transferred to United Hospital in St. Paul.

An angiogram showed that the main left artery in his heart was 80 percent blocked and the main right artery was 90 percent blocked. Surgeons inserted two stents in the arteries, and at noon on May 5, Panning walked out of the hospital.

Panning said he's a lifelong exerciser and wasn't aware that he was in danger of cardiac arrest.

"I was a little short of breath and I couldn't run like I used to, but I thought, well, I have some age problem here," he said.

"That's the message for anybody over 50. They better get a complete stress test. If I wouldn't have been at the Y... I probably would not be here today."

St. Croix EMS Chief Eric Christensen said all of the elements for a successful rescue were in place at the Y, which a year ago got two defibrillators and trained the entire staff to use them. The entire staff also is trained to administer first aid and CPR.

Hitchcock said the defibrillator was the key to Panning's revival.

"The team approach was very important, but that defibrillator was a critical component of the team. Without that, his heart would never have gotten in rhythm," he said.

Randy Hanson can be reached at

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

(715) 426-1066