By Kim Walter
Shenandoah County Sheriff's Lt. Billy Rice has been through a lot during the past few months, and not in terms of catching criminals or writing tickets.
The 46-year-old experienced severe cardiac arrest in January while at work that resulted in him "going down" for about 24 minutes before he finally produced a heartbeat. He credits his coworkers for administering the CPR that saved his life.
"There must've been something that told them not to give up," Rice said recently, as he participated in his physical therapy at Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg. "I think after a few minutes, most people would've just thought I was dead ... but they called 911, did the CPR and ... here I am."
During the last week in March, Rice, of Maurertown, had to have a defibrillator implanted in his chest to monitor his heart's function so that an event similar to the one earlier this year could be prevented. Less than a week after the surgery, he was back at the hospital, walking on a treadmill while health officials monitored his vital signs.
Even on his off days from therapy, Rice said he tries to get exercise. He's made other modifications to his lifestyle as well.
"I had some family history of heart disease, I wasn't eating or exercising like I should've, I was smoking and honestly my job in law enforcement produced an amount of stress that probably didn't help anything," he said. "You put all those together, and I guess it kind of makes sense."
Rice had his first heart attack in 2004 when he was only in his mid 30s. He said he now realizes that heart disease "doesn't care about age."
He admitted, though, that he didn't think he would have an issue again.
"People say lightening doesn't strike in the same place twice," he said. "Well, it did."
Along with working for the Sheriff's Office, Rice also had experience as an emergency responder in Woodstock. He said that over the past 30 years he's seen people go into cardiac arrest - some of them had a positive outcome, but others didn't.
Rice said he never thought he'd be the one taken to a hospital, but he's glad the coworkers and friends who were around him on that "eventful" Wednesday knew their CPR. He also credits the hypothermic protocol treatment to further improving his quality of life.
Brad Rash, Rice's cardiologist at Rockingham Memorial, has worked with Rice since the day he came into the hospital.
"We decided to use the protocol to help cool his body down to protect his brain from injury, since it wasn't getting enough blood flow," the doctor said. "When he finally woke up, he did exceptionally well. He has no cognitive impairment, which is amazing, and it really speaks to the effectiveness of the CPR and hypothermic treatment."
Rash is a firm believer in spreading the CPR message. He said that just showing people videos of the life-saving effort can impact their decision to try it when it's needed.
However, he noted that CPR guidelines have changed recently.
"We know now that the chest compressions are actually much more important than the breaths," he said. "Especially if you're by yourself and giving CPR ... just worry about the compressions, because that's what ultimately leads to a successful outcome."
Rash and Rice have continued to look at his heart health risk factors, which has resulted in Rice's decision to quit smoking, exercise more and change to a Mediterranean style diet.
Of course, the defibrillator also helps with all this, as it can detect a bad heart rhythm.
"His coworkers are definitely to be congratulated for what they did for Mr. Rice that day," Rash said. "They had the knowledge to quickly call 911, and the skill to effectively do CPR ... I mean, they helped him stay alive, and have kept him here today with his cognitive function in tact. You can't always say something like that for someone like Mr. Rice."
Since the most recent event, Rice has decided to take his experience and use it in a positive way. As the president of the Woodstock-Edinburg Little League, Rice said he is hoping to get automated external defibrillator machines at each baseball field in the county.
"We have thousands of people coming to our fields each year," he said. "Obviously, you just never know when someone will need something like that."
Since coming home from the hospital in early February, Rice also has taken his young sons to get a heart check-up. He said they both produced a "clean bill of health," but it was still good to get them thinking about it.
While Rice has been instructed to retire from his position with the Sheriff's Office in July, he said he still hopes to volunteer and stay active in the community.
"I mean, to do that work for almost 30 years, and then have to stop at the drop of a hat ... it's hard," he said.
However, he credits law enforcement with instilling in him an attitude that he plans to live by for the rest of his life.
"When I started in 1986 there was something they taught us ... heck, it's something they still teach the young recruits today," he said. "You never give. You always go home."
Rice said he's learned a lot about heart disease, including statistics, over the past few months. He said that of the 25,000 Americans who go into cardiac arrest each year, only 8 percent survive - and he's part of that small group.
"I want to be healthy for my kids and my family, of course, but I want to do this for myself, too," he said. "If they give me three years, I'll shoot for six, you know? I haven't gotten a limit like that, but I just know now that every day is a blessing to be alive."
"It's like that one country song says, 'live like you're dying,'" he said, and smiled. "I can't allow what's happened to me to get me down. I want others to learn from my experience, because I know I have."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org