At 5 a.m. only a handful of early-birds were using the Southeast Heights gym where Michael Wentzel worked out three or four days a week. He had his earphones in and was wrapping up his weightlifting set when a frantic patron ran up.
“Are you a doctor?” she asked. “There’s somebody passed out in the back of the gym.”
Wentzel, 41, a third-year student in the UNM School of Medicine and a registered nurse, discovered a young woman sprawled on the floor. He knelt down to check her vital signs and was dismayed to find she had no pulse and wasn’t breathing.
“I kind of went into automatic mode,” he recalls. “I started doing chest compressions. I didn’t do anything I haven’t done in the ER or the ICU. Everybody else was wigging out.”
Someone called 911, while someone else brought over an automated defibrillator. “We shocked her twice, but it kept saying, ‘No rhythm’,” Wentzel says. “I must have done chest compressions for seven to 10 minutes before the paramedics showed up.”
The rescue crew found the woman’s heart was going in and out of ventricular fibrillation – a kind of spasm that prevents the heart from contracting properly and usually leads to sudden death. They injected her with epinephrine and lidocaine to stabilize her and rushed her to UNM Hospital.
Belinda Yuen remembers none of this.
The soft-spoken 28-year-old woke up at the hospital with a long scar on her chest and another on her left forearm where surgeons had to harvest an artery for a double bypass to correct a congenital heart defect.
“I don’t remember going to the gym at all,” Yuen says. “I woke up with all the machines, but I didn’t know what was going on or what had happened at all. I didn’t know which hospital I was at – I just knew I was in the hospital.”
Family members flew in from out of state. They told Yuen, a former UNM student who works at Albuquerque’s Talin Market, that she had collapsed while working out on the morning of September 26.
“It was crazier for everyone else than it was for me,” she says. “My whole family was freaked out. I didn’t know how bad it was until some of my siblings told me.”
Yuen grew up in American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the Pacific with about 55,000 residents. As a child she had been diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease, but she had never been told that she had been born with a rare abnormality that prevented sufficient blood flow from reaching her heart.
“My whole life I had the hardest time catching up when I had PE classes,” she says. “I was always the last student running, because I took my time. I couldn’t run as fast as the other students.”
A month after her ordeal, Yuen is back home, surrounded by family and friends. She’s slowly regaining her strength and hopes to return to work in January. “For me, it’s a life-changing experience,” she says. “I’m an active person. At the moment it’s so hard not to do anything.”
Michael Wentzel wasn’t wearing his scrubs in the gym that morning, but he often had in the past, which was why one of the regulars knew to seek him out to deal with the emergency.
Wentzel was raised in Tularosa, N.M., the son of hearing-impaired parents. “Growing up I was their interpreter – I was their voice,” he says. He enlisted in the Air Force out of high school, starting out in the military police, and later earning a nursing degree from New Mexico State University.
He served as an ICU nurse in military hospitals around the U.S., in Asia and in Europe, attaining the rank of captain. After 10 years in the service he returned to civilian life with a plan to earn an advanced nursing degree at the University of Tennessee.
“It just wasn’t a fit,” Wentzel says. He withdrew from graduate school to move to Arizona to help his sister, a family nurse practitioner, while her husband served in Iraq. “It gave me a chance to ponder,” he says.
He went back to school to complete prerequisites in biochemistry, organic chemistry and physics, and started applying to medical schools. “I had six interviews,” he says. “UNM was the only one that took me, and they didn’t have to – I hadn’t lived here in 12 years.”
Medical school has been “awesome,” says Wentzel, who has been working part-time as a nursing supervisor at UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center to help pay for his education. “It’s kind of like ‘the prodigal son returns.’”
Yuen says she appreciates how lucky it is that her medical episode happened when a trained medical professional was nearby. “I’m really grateful for that,” she says.
Wentzel stopped by Yuen’s hospital room to meet her about 10 days after her surgery.
“She did fine,” he says. “I got to say hi to her and met her sisters. I’ve done this before, and it’s a wonderful feeling, but this was very personal, because I was the only one there. I was just thankful, because I almost didn’t go to the gym.”
Everything that could have gone right did, he says. “I was just glad I was there. It just reinforces everything that’s right for me and the fit at UNM.”