Cyclist Pete Holroyd survived a heart attack thanks to cool-headed friends and lots of luck. But if more Britons were first-aid aware, many more lives could be saved
At 5am on Saturday 8 June, six fit, middle-aged cyclists set out from Eastbourne to cycle the South Downs Way. On a chilly but beautiful day they faced a series of tough climbs on their route to Winchester, more than 100 miles away across Britain’s newest national park.
They would cycle no more than a dozen miles. After a long climb out of the village of Alfriston up Bo Peep Hill, one cyclist collapsed. With pedal clips and backpack still on, his eyes open, he lay on the ground unconscious: within minutes he would be dead. Pete Holroyd, a 56-year-old IT expert, had had a heart attack. A main artery, doctors later found, was 99% blocked.
Chris Grose, one of Holroyd’s fellow riders, could not help thinking, despite his distress: “If you had to die, what a stunning place to go – a beautiful morning on top of the South Downs.”
Because of what happened, the group of friends chose yesterday, World First Aid Day, to return to Eastbourne and complete their ride. Four of them set out again to ride the South Downs Way in a day, while a fifth flew to France for a six-day ride from Nice to Geneva, over the Alps. On Tuesday the first four will be at an evening session, some with their children, to learn the basics of life-saving.
The only one of the six not in the saddle this weekend was Pete Holroyd. But at least he was able to wish them all the best, and hear afterwards how they fared. He can also host those life-saving first-aid lessons, for 24 people, at his home. Because, remarkably, Holroyd was brought back to life after having been clinically dead for nearly half an hour. He is alive today thanks to the efforts of his friends, and of the emergency services and doctors – and because he had a lot of luck.
His survival was arguably even more remarkable than that of Fabrice Muamba, the footballer who collapsed on the pitch at Tottenham last year and was lifeless for 78 minutes. Muamba had a heart surgeon and a team of paramedics on hand. Holroyd had a group of mates in Lycra who, when he collapsed, were not even sure exactly where they were. They were only a few hundred yards from a “dead zone” for mobile phones, nowhere near a road, and the air ambulance was not operating that early in the morning.
“When I arrived he was very dead,” said Colin Burden, the first trained helper on the scene, who had been called from his bed in Alfriston just after 6.30am. Burden, 67, a retired paramedic who is now a volunteer first aider, has worked in or with the ambulance service for more than 50 years. “I’ve seen remarkable survival cases before, but not like this. He must have had the gods looking down on him.”
A shock from Burden’s defibrillator eventually put a spark of life back into Holroyd’s body, before a paramedic and two ambulances arrived to take over.
The odds were against Holroyd in many ways. Statistically he was in trouble, even with five friends to help – Grose, Tim Jones, Tim Garnett, Jim Springham and Richard Burrows, all from the same West Sussex village, Hurstpierpoint. According to the British Red Cross, only one in seven people knows how to respond in an emergency such as this, a woefully low number compared with many parts of the world. Very few people survive once they stop breathing and their heart stops beating. Extremely low temperatures can help, but in a remote place on a summer’s day, with paramedics at least 20 minutes away, Holroyd’s case seemed hopeless.
“His friends kept him alive,” said Burden, “by keeping his body in a saveable state.” Following instructions from a Lewes control room, they had performed CPR and prevented him from getting too chilled.
When those friends went to the Royal Sussex County hospital the next day to find Holroyd sitting up in bed complaining about the mobile phone signal, they could barely believe it. “One of the staff came over and shook our hands,” said Grose. “He told us Pete should not have survived. It was a one-in-a-million chance.” A week later Holroyd hosted a thank-you barbecue for his rescuers and their families, along with his own partner, Catherine, his three sons and two stepsons.
“Without his friends, he would have died,” said Dr Sean O’Nunain, the heart specialist who operated on Holroyd. There were other factors working in his favour. A cold north wind blowing on to his head might have helped, according to Burden. And a farmer was fixing his fence on Bo Peep Hill, which meant a gap the ambulance could get through. “Without that gap the medics would have had to run across a couple of fields,” said Springham.
Then there was Caroline Booth, the emergency medical adviser at the other end of the phone in Lewes, a few miles away. The rescuers variously described her as “that awesome woman”, “an amazing lady” and “a beautiful person on the end of the phone”. Booth, 34, gave each of the men a specific task: take the phone and issue my instructions; do chest compressions; try mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; work on keeping his legs warm; ride back down the hill and show the first responder where to go. It worked.
None of them met Booth until last Tuesday evening when, back up on the Downs, they gathered with her and an Observer photographer to take some pictures. There was a lot of hugging and mutual admiration.
“They were very, very good listeners,” said Booth. “I think it’s just fantastic that they’re organising these first-responder sessions.”
Garnett adds: “It was a very strange situation. In one sense it was highly emotional, because our mate was lying dead on the ground, and we would occasionally shout up at the sky: ‘Bring him back! Don’t let our mate die!’ But at the same time we had to be completely unemotional, and do what we were told. We were very, very focused.”
Burrows, a care home owner who had attended a St John Ambulance course on heart failure, was the first to realise there was a serious problem. “He was the one who twigged that Pete had had a heart attack,” said Jones. Burrows got Holroyd into position, checked his airway was clear, and started chest compressions before Jones took over. “Unless you’ve done a course you’d be very nervous about all of this,” said Burrows. “If I hadn’t done it, maybe the outcome would have been different.”
Jones, a former schoolboy rugby international, is 6ft 4in tall and very fit. He took over the chest compressions as Booth counted out the rhythm over the phone. “She told us to just keep pumping, don’t worry about breaking a rib, and the brain will stay alive. You could see the blood making a vein move on Pete’s neck. It never occurred to me that he might die. It’s not something I was willing to accept. He had a sore chest for a week afterwards.”
Grose recalled: “At one point another cyclist came by and asked what was going on. I told him there was one of our group down, and he was really shaken. He was out on his own, said he did it a lot, but wasn’t going to do it again.”
Few people are as lucky as Holroyd. St John Ambulance estimates that many thousands of people die who would have a chance of survival if more people had first-aid training. St John Ambulance, the Resuscitation Council and the British Red Cross are campaigning to make life-saving a compulsory part of the school curriculum, as it is in France, Denmark and Norway among others. The “world capital” of heart attack response is Seattle, where every citizen is trained, there’s always a defibrillator handy and the survival rate is 55%, seven times America’s national average.
“First-aid training is seen as a slightly geeky, a bit church hall and boy scouts,” said Joe Mulligan of British Red Cross. “People don’t realise that when you use it, it’s usually on someone you love. In other countries it’s seen as the ultimate humanitarian act to be able to save the life of somebody you love. It doesn’t seem to be seen as a life skill by our government. It has never been on the curriculum, but a child can save a life.”
Holroyd and friends would all agree, which is why he was keen to host the first-aid sessions this week. He’s also keen to get back on the South Downs.
“I’m not fit enough to do it this season, but after my operation [he had a stent put in to clear his artery] I can easily ride 80 to 100 miles in a day. It’s easier now than it was three months ago. Next year, around Easter, I’ll ride the South Downs Way. And my mates will come with me.”