Pete Bernacchi

Successfully tracking down La Porte, Ind., resident Pete Bernacchi depends on what time of year it is. From May through October, you’ll likely find the 75-year-old retiree on Hudson Lake feeding his three-times-a-week water skiing habit (a quick 250 turns) or hitting the road with his 84-year-old cousin to log 20-30 miles on their bikes each day.

When the wet suits just aren’t enough to beat the cold, Pete, a father to four grown kids and grandfather to 10, bides his time until the spring thaw on his elliptical cross-training machine, cycling at the Indiana University Health Wellness Services at The Crossing, and with sessions on the underwater treadmill at Indiana University Health Wellness Services at Sagamore.  

Pete remembers his treadmill session on March 15, 2013. “I was on the treadmill, almost done with my workout, and the next thing I know, I’m in the hospital, three days later.”

Quick, life-saving thinking

What Pete learned later was that he collapsed while running—his heart had stopped. “Since I was in almost six feet of water, that meant I essentially drowned,” says Pete.

A man waiting for his turn on the treadmill alerted staff at the front desk. Staff trained in CPR pulled Pete from the pool and administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and used a defibrillator to restore Pete’s heartbeat.

“They got my heart going again,” says Pete. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be alive.”

Paramedics arrived and transported Pete to Indiana University Health La Porte Hospital. When his wife, Pat, arrived, Pete was unconscious and on a ventilator. Doctors had already run tests to determine what had happened, but admitted the results left them puzzled.

“They didn’t know what was wrong with him,” says Pat. “Based on the test results, he hadn’t had a heart attack or stroke. In fact, the doctor showed me the image of his blood vessels and told me I should have it framed; they were as clear as a kid’s.”

Doctors needed to determine what had happened to know how to best treat Pete, so he was moved to intensive care, where he underwent therapeutic hyperthermia, an innovative treatment that cools the body to slow or prevent brain injury and organ damage that can occur due to lack of oxygen. Special cooling pads around Pete’s trunk and legs slowly lowered his body temperature by six degrees.

“The nurses worked really hard—they were by his beside nonstop,” says Pat. “They were fabulous.”

Looking back offers clues to moving forward

Although tests confirmed that Pete hadn’t had a heart attack, he had suffered one 40 years earlier. Pat asked Pete’s physician, IU Health cardiologist McKindra Fletcher, MD, if he wanted to see Pete’s medical records from the Mayo Clinic, where she and Pete had been going for an annual physical since Pete’s heart attack.

“He sat until midnight reading through the records and called Mayo the next day to talk with Pete’s doctor there,” remembers Pat.

While reviewing scans included with the records, Dr. Fletcher saw evidence of scar tissue left by the heart attack. He believed Pete’s incident on the treadmill was a cardiac arrest, due in part to the scar tissue.

“No one’s 100 percent sure, but they think for some reason, that one time, an electrical impulse didn’t get through that scar tissue, and Pete’s heart suddenly stopped beating,” says Pat.

With that diagnosis, Pete underwent the process to slowly warm up his body so electrophysiologist  Mark Dixon, DO, could implant a defibrillator, a device that monitors the heartbeat and gives an electric shock if it detects a dangerous heart rhythm.  

“Dr. Dixon and Dr. Fletcher said they couldn’t let me go home without one,” says Pete. “What happened was a fluke, but they said it could happen again tomorrow, or never again.”  

Despite all he went through, Pete says he didn’t feel any different when he left the hospital than before the cardiac arrest.

“I have all of my strength and am water skiing, biking and doing everything like I did before,” he says, including the family’s annual snow skiing trip to Boyne Mountain in Michigan over the holidays.

“I’m so thankful to the IU Health Sagamore Center staff and the staff at the hospital,” says Pat. “Thanks to all of them, Pete’s a walking miracle man.”

Pete adds, “We always knew IU Health La Porte Hospital’s cardiac unit had a good reputation; after this experience, we feel it is by far one of the best.  La Porte is fortunate to have such an excellent resource."

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