GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s been five months since Don Westhouse stopped breathing while waterskiing in Newaygo County.

On Wednesday, he and Mary Westhouse — his wife — sat down with News 8 at Corewell Health in downtown Grand Rapids to share their story.

The health system was celebrating a milestone involving the procedure that’s helping Don Westhouse regain his active lifestyle.  

“All of it is miraculous,” said Don Westhouse, referring to his initial rescue, Corewell Health doctors and the surgery he underwent in September.

5-10% SUCCESS RATE TO 85-95%

After his cardiac arrest in late July, doctors discovered Don Westhouse, 67, had a chronic total occlusion, which is a complete blockage of an artery, caused by a buildup of plaque and lasting for at least three months.

“In years past, we didn’t really have a good way to open those vessels,” explained Dr. Kevin Wolschleger, an interventional cardiologist at Corewell Health.”We didn’t have the proper equipment, techniques. So the thought back then was, ‘Well, you just have to live with this pain, or take medications.'”

But that changed in 2013 when Wolschleger and Dr. David Wohns started performing a new, complex, non-invasive procedure that uses wires to break through a complete blockage, open the artery and place a stent.

It’s similar to routine angioplasties, but the equipment and technique are slightly different and much more complicated.  

Don Westhouse at the hospital.
Don Westhouse at the hospital. (Courtesy Mary Westhouse)

A decade later, a collaborative team led by Wolschleger and Wohns has performed 500 such procedures.

“Before these last ten years, these CTO’s would either require a bypass operation or be treated with medicine,” explained Dr. Wohns, also an interventional cardiologist with Corewell Health. “Now, we’re able to open up that artery perfectly well with no surgery and fully restore the blood flow.”

Wolschleger noted it’s rare that a hospital can perform this non-invasive surgery on a chronic total occlusion. 

“There are not many places that have two physicians dedicated to this procedure. We do it on a dedicated day with a dedicated team,” explained Wolschleger. 

The doctors gain access to the blocked artery through the patient’s wrist, groin or a combination of both.

“It’s kind of a touch and feel type thing, and then it’s a matter of escalating the wires,” said Wolschleger.

Wohns said they begin with wires that are “very floppy,” and then graduate to stiffer wire depending on what’s needed to penetrate the occlusion.  

The procedure can take up to four hours to perform, and it’s not foolproof.

Wolschleger and Wohns said they successfully open the artery in 85 to 90% of cases.

“Historically, the rate for getting these open was five to 10%. Very hard to do. Not only getting them open, but getting them open safely,” explained Dr. Wohns.

The doctors said the procedure is only for CTO patients who exhibit symptoms, like shortness of breath or chest pains.

“It’s for those who are continuing to suffer in some way that we’ll offer this procedure,” explained Wolschleger. “Anybody in the past who’s been told they have coronary disease, and nothing could be done, there’s things that have changed over the years, and now there are possibilities.”

The procedure, according to the doctors, has restored quality of life for people whose heart disease restricted their activities. 

Don and Mary Westhouse of Dorr know that firsthand.

Don and Mary Westhouse.
Don and Mary Westhouse. (Courtesy Mary Westhouse)

‘NOTHING SHORT OF A MIRACLE’

Don Westhouse underwent Wolschleger and Wohn’s procedure in mid-September, a month and a half after he suffered a near-fatal cardiac arrest while waterskiing on Fremont Lake in Newaygo County.

Thanks to the surgery, Don and Mary Westhouse expects to be back on waterskies this summer.

The couple, both 67, were healthy and active prior to July 29, 2022.

They were spending the weekend at their place on Fremont Lake and had gone out to waterski before breakfast as usual.  

Don Westhouse waterskiing.
Don Westhouse waterskiing. (Courtesy Mary Westhouse)

As they prepared to take a routine break, Mary Westhouse pulled Don Westhouse, her husband of 47 years, back towards the boat.

“I got him close to the boat, probably three feet away, and the rope slipped out of his hand, and I looked, and I thought, ‘He’s not breathing,'” she recalled, noting he was wearing a life jacket. “I hollered to my sister-in-law, ‘Don’s in trouble.'”

Mary Westhouse and her sister-in-law managed to him Don Westhouse onto the water-level wooden platform on the back of the boat.

“We did CPR as best we could, which isn’t easy on a boat because when you push down to do the compression the whole boat goes down. You’re floating,” she said.

Fortunately, the Westhouse’s grandchildren, ages 7 through 11, had declined to go out on the lake that morning.

Instead, Don and Mary Westhouse’s sister-in-law, Pam, accompanied them to act as spotter.

“(Pam’s) a nurse. That’s another thing,” said Mary Westhouse, referring to Pam’s occupation. “God’s timing in all of it was very evident.”

At one point, after a call to 911, Pam directed Mary Westhouse to drive the boat to shore.

Mary Westhouse said she was in a panic and followed Pam’s directions like a robot. 

She knew she could not drive fast because Don Westhouse and Pam would fall off the back of the boat.

“It was more time obviously,” said Mary Westhouse. “All of it was time, and I knew time was a factor.”

First responders saving Don Westhouse.
First responders saving Don Westhouse. (Courtesy Mary Westhouse)

When they finally made it to shore, at least 10 minutes had passed, and paramedics were waiting to give Don Westhouse’s heart an electric shock.

First responders successfully saved Don Westhouse's life.
First responders successfully saved Don Westhouse’s life. (Courtesy Fremont Fire Department)

“I just went under a shade tree and prayed,” recalled Mary Westhouse. “I didn’t want to watch. … I heard when they started paddling.”

She said the emergency crew out of Fremont shocked Don Westhouse’s heart eight times.

“We’ve talked to enough volunteer firemen who said, ‘We never do it that many times,’ but they were getting little glimpses. The first responder said, ‘I know he just grabbed some air. I just saw him.’ So keep going,” she said.

After 30 minutes, Don Westhouse was stable enough to transport to the hospital.   

“It was nothing short of a miracle,” said Mary Westhouse. “It really was because it was a long time. They gave him six epinephrine shots, which is beyond what is normal.”

‘AN INCREDIBLE RECOVERY’

Don Westhouse has no memory of the incident or even the days and hours leading up to it.

Sitting next to his wife during the interview, Don Westhouse thanked God, his wife, sister-in-law, doctors and all of the emergency workers who fought to save him.  

Don and Mary Westhouse at their wedding.
Don and Mary Westhouse at their wedding. (Courtesy Mary Westhouse)

But, ultimately, he and his wife give all the glory to God.    

“God is doing miraculous things all the time,” said Don Westhouse. “Sometimes he lets us see it.”

According to Wolschleger and Wohns, only 10% of those who suffer cardiac arrests outside of a hospital survive the episode.

“Sudden cardiac death can be the first symptom people have, and many don’t have a second chance the way Don did,” said Dr. Wohns, who called the Westhouse’s survival story “amazing.”

“He’s had an incredible recovery after a very long resuscitation,” said Wohns.

He noted, too, the critical impact of the CPR Mary Westhouse and Pam did in those first 10 minutes.

“If he had not had that during the time they were getting the boat to shore, he would not have survived,” he said.

In the wake of their experience, Mary Westhouse urges others to take action and perform CPR immediately in a medical emergency.  

She also reminds boaters to wear their life jackets, even if they’re not the one waterskiing.

While Don Westhouse wore a life jacket, she did not, which made it more difficult when she jumped in to save him.

Don and Mary Westhouse with their family.
Don and Mary Westhouse with their family. (Courtesy Mary Westhouse)

When asked what his message would be, Don Westhouse urged people to live life in way that does not lead to regret, quoting the American Christian missionary, Jim Elliot.  

“Live life in a way that when it comes time to die, all you have to do is die,” said Don Westhouse. “It was pretty precious to both (Mary and me), as we reflected on those moments, that neither one of us thought, ‘I should have’ or ‘I wish I had,’ and not because we’re noble people. We’re just very thankful we found ourselves at that place without a whole bunch … or any … regrets.”