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NIH Record

'CPR Saves Lives'
Quick Response Lauded in Medical Emergency

In the middle of an off-campus NIH meeting, several participants suddenly found themselves battling a life-threatening medical emergency that served as a more powerful testament to NIH's mission than any federal policy session ever could. Months later, one participant is glad to be alive, and others are being hailed as heroes.

On Oct. 22, Dr. David Frohnmayer, president of the University of Oregon and a member of NIH's Council of Public Representatives (COPR), was attending a meeting at a Bethesda hotel. As a member of a working group assigned to review NIH's research accomplishments as part of the agency's compliance with the Government Performance and Results Act, Frohnmayer was giving remarks when he suddenly collapsed. In moments, he was unconscious and in apparent cardiac arrest.

Led by Dr. Greg Downing, a pediatrician and former Bldg. 49 lab worker who now is a science policy analyst in NIH's Office of Science Policy, a team of onlookers that included Dr. Jacqueline Jones of Cornell University Medical College and an ad hoc working group member; Dr. Ting-Kai Li, distinguished professor at Indiana University and a member of the advisory committee to the NIH director; and other COPR members Dr. Melanie Dreher of the University of Iowa, and Dr. Mary desVignes-Kendrick of Houston, initiated resuscitation efforts. When the rescue squad arrived, an electrocardiogram showed Frohnmayer was experiencing an abnormal electrical rhythm of the heart beat that prevents the heart from effectively pumping blood. Despite multiple defibrillation attempts, his heart remained in the abnormal rhythm. CPR was administered for about a half hour until he was transported to Suburban Hospital, where a normal heart rate was restored with the help of additional antiarrhythmic medications.

"There is a pertinent message for all of the NIH community in this unfortunate event that luckily had a miraculous outcome — that is the importance of knowing CPR skills," noted Downing. "There were some who used this experience to point out the need for defibrillators in public places. The fact is that Mr. Frohnmayer was defibrillated seven times, but did not recover until additional antiarrythmic drugs were administered at the hospital. The point sometimes gets lost in discussions about defibrillators that they only work in the field about 30 to 40 percent of the time and that CPR is needed to sustain life until more advanced levels of care can be provided. The bottom line here is that CPR saves lives, and public awareness of the need for these skills is still important."

Cardiac care specialists determined that Frohnmayer, who had previously been in good health and undergone an extensive physical only a month before, had had neither a heart attack nor a congenital heart problem and that the cause of the nearly fatal arrhythmia was unknown. He made a full recovery despite the extensive time his heart was in fibrillation, and had a defibrillator implanted in his heart to thwart any life-threatening arrythmias should they recur. Downing noted that NIH has a rich investment in the research that developed the implantable defibrillators. Frohnmayer returned to directing the University of Oregon several weeks ago, and has resumed normal daily activities.

"He is truly lucky to have survived, and to come through this without any neurological injury is absolutely extraordinary," remarked Downing.

Still, a number of witnesses and Frohnmayer himself credit Downing's extraordinary lifesaving effort.

"Greg Downing served a pivotal role in the cardiopulmonary resuscitation effort," said Li. "He performed cardiac compression expertly and untiringly over a sustained period of time. Without him, I'm certain the resuscitation would not have had as outstanding an outcome as it did."

Frohnmayer, in a letter to NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus, said he would be delighted to recognize "Greg's heroism. I quite literally owe my life to him."

However, Downing demurs at efforts to acknowledge him for what he considers his job. "I am happy to have been able to have been of assistance that day," he concluded, "but I was simply doing what I am trained to do."

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