Lynne Blake found the cause she wanted to champion with all her heart after she suffered a sudden cardiac arrest in 2007.
She was 27 years old, newly married, fit and otherwise healthy when the heart attack struck. A bystander who knew how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) helped save her life.
Since then, Blake has dedicated herself to raising awareness and education across Eagle County.
"I went back to work for a while afterward but it didn't feel right," the Eagle-Vail resident said. "I felt called to help others. I had never taken a CPR class and didn't even really know what a cardiac arrest was. If a young, well-educated woman like me didn't know much about it, how many others didn't?"
Blake took a CPR class with the goal of becoming a certified instructor and the Starting Hearts program was born two years ago. She now visits schools and other groups, teaching them the basics of CPR and AEDs (automated external defibrillators). These free awareness courses now feature the HeartRod - a bus turned into a mobile training unit and painted to look like a hot rod car.
While participants in the awareness program get to learn and practice CPR on mannequins, and learn what cardiac arrest looks like, what an AED is and how to use it, they are not certified by the course.
Blake has offered free certification in the past but businesses that require CPR certification for employees took advantage of the opportunity and Blake said she felt like she was missing her target audience. Since she works full time for zero pay, functioning on donations, grants and support from her husband, she is looking to turn her certification course into a revenue source for Starting Hearts.
Likewise, the Western Eagle County Ambulance District offers free CPR/first aid certification classes to Eagle and Gypsum residents each month but charges businesses a variable rate. (See the "WECAD classes" info box for more details.)
In her mission to make AEDs, training and awareness more widely available throughout the county, Blake is partnering with entities such as WECAD.
"(Blake) is definitely not competing with us, she is helping us get the word out," said Hannah Lovato, WECAD's CPR/PAD program coordinator. "We have a good relationship with her."
Blake built those relationships by attending Eagle County Prevention Committee meetings.
"I got to know some of the people and started the Eagle County Sudden Cardiac Arrest Task Force," she said.
The task force has been meeting once a month since August. Dr. Larry Gaul of Vail Valley Medical Center is its medical director.
"I'm trying to build a network of instructors," Blake said.
As Starting Hearts marks its second year in June, Blake is looking to hit the streets in full force.
"With the nicer weather, we will be ramping up the program," she said.
Naturally, Blake's husband, Matt Blake, learned CPR after her close call.
"It was the last thing I expected," Matt said of his wife's heart attack. "It happened 11 days after we were married, two days after we got back from our honeymoon."
He initially thought she had a seizure.
"I got a call at work and the doctor said, 'she's alive,' and I was like, 'Well, yeah, of course,' but then the doctor told me she had a cardiac arrest," Matt said. "I didn't have much concept of what that was - it can happen to anyone. Lynn was healthy."
Matt said if the heart attack happened while they were on vacation he wouldn't have been able to help her.
"It changed the way we live," he said.
Matt's next step toward helping his wife's mission will be to get his commercial driver's license so he can drive the HeartRod.
"I can't believe AEDs and CPR education aren't more common and mandatory," he said. "We're aiming to change that, starting with Eagle County."
(See Lynn Blake's accompanying story below for a first-person account of her experience and how she came to be implanted with a pacemaker/defibrillator.)
Editor's note: The following story was written by Lynn Blake and appears on her website, http://rss.startinghearts.org/archives/lynn-blake.
I was a newlywed of 11 days, reporting to work for the third day in a new position with the Vail Valley Partnership. I was 27 years old, trying to maintain a professional career and a balanced, healthy lifestyle while having fun and living life to the fullest in the extraordinary Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I never thought my life would be changed by a sudden cardiac arrest. I was fit, thin, a healthy eater, non-smoker and routine exerciser; there were no symptoms whatsoever.
Valentine's Day 2007 started just like any other day. I was very excited about the idea of celebrating the lovers' holiday with my new husband, so I got up a little early to stop by the grocery store to pick up a card, some heart candy for the office, and a couple of ingredients to make a romantic dinner for my new husband. Around noon, a group of co-workers and I were wrapping-up a training event when - in mid-sentence and without warning - I collapsed in my chair.
My co-workers thought I might be having a seizure, but then quickly realized the situation was even more serious. A shout for CPR was made through the office and a woman eagerly responded that she wanted to take the course.
Seconds later, the woman realized they weren't offering a course but that the skills she was previously taught were now being requested. This woman, Sue Froeschle, and a group of others immediately followed the links suggested in the Chain of Survival.
Fortunately the fire department was across the street and they quickly responded by running over to assist with CPR and administer defibrillation. Shortly thereafter, the paramedics arrived and began performing advanced techniques in order to stabilize me enough for transportation to the Vail Valley Medical Center.
Once at VVMC, it was communicated that I suffered a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) and was going to require a more advanced emergency and trauma center with access to high level cardiac care. Flight for Life was scheduled to fly me to Denver but was grounded due to severe snow storms. The ambulance transportation guidelines had recently changed, allowing my ambulance responders to drive the 100 miles and safely deliver me to Presbyterian St. Luke's Hospital (PSL) in Denver. Several hours later, Interstate 70 - the only way to Denver from Vail - was closed due to the hazardous weather and all mountain travel was suspended.
At PSL, my family was told that my destiny was bleak. Despite the grim situation, the doctors and nurses worked through numerous roadblocks, including blood clots and threats of leg amputation, to bring me back to a point of recovery. Needless to say, I miraculously survived and am living a normal life with the help of an implanted pacemaker/defibrillator in the event that something should happen again.
The doctors remain stumped with my incident. Most attribute the situation to an episode of tachycardia as a baby and some suggest it could have been the stress of getting married, a new job or the blood clot that appeared in my leg the day of the incident. We may never know.
I owe my improbable survival and successful recovery to the immediate and effective CPR response and early defibrillation. A day does not pass without my reflecting on the blessings and fortunes I received that allowed me to survive this tragic incident. I'm one of the lucky ones and have been given another chance at life. I know that everyone has the opportunity to make a difference and feel compelled to pursue this calling. I cannot ignore what happened to me and feel that I must give back by raising awareness for SCA and the importance of CPR training and AED (automated external defibrillator) prevalence. Because of these experiences, I'm in the process of establishing Starting Hearts, an organization dedicated to saving lives through CPR and AED education and awareness.