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Minutes before Gonzaga Symphony was about to perform, father in audience went into cardiac arrest – here’s how his life was saved

UPDATED: Tue., March 15, 2022

Luis and Sundi Perez are photographed with their daughter, Brooke, on Monday in Spokane. Luis recently survived a serious health scare with the help of his wife and off-duty police officer Xenon Berkeley.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Luis and Sundi Perez are photographed with their daughter, Brooke, on Monday in Spokane. Luis recently survived a serious health scare with the help of his wife and off-duty police officer Xenon Berkeley. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

The crowd was settling into their seats as the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra began warming up for their first concert of the year on Feb. 28.

It was a special day for Luis and Sundi Perez, who were excited to watch their daughter Brooke, 18, play her violin in her first performance with the orchestra.

A proud father, Luis, 54, snapped a photo during warm ups at 7:18 p.m. before he turned to his daughter’s roommate and noted this was a performance to remember.

Seconds later, he went into cardiac arrest.

Thanks to the quick response of his wife, an off -duty Spokane police officer, nurses in the crowd and one shock of an automated external defibrillator , Luis Perez was shocked back to life in less than six minutes in a “perfect example of everything lining up,” said Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.

No warning signs

The couple arrived in Spokane from their hometown of Wenatchee with their neighbors to attend the concert. They checked in to their hotel and went to dinner at Churchill’s Steakhouse before heading to the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center for the 7:30 p.m. performance.

Warm ups had just started and Perez was chatting with Brooke’s roommate when “the lights just shut down,” he said.

At first the people around him thought he was having a seizure, Sundi Perez said. She thought he might be having an allergic reaction, as he gasped and growled, she said. She tapped his cheeks then yelled his name, trying to get through to him, she recalled.

Then he went limp.

“When he went limp in the chair, I could tell he was gone,” Sundi Perez said.

She works in a dental office and has extensive CPR training, but in that moment, it was difficult to stay calm when it was a loved one in danger.

That’s when off-duty Spokane police officer Xenon Berkeley ran over.

“It helped to have Xenon because he was more in clinical mode,” Sundi Perez said.

Berkeley had been chatting with a friend from his seat across the aisle from the Perez family when he looked over and saw Perez struggling to breathe.

Two nurses from the crowd already had rushed over when Berkeley went to help lift Luis out of his chair to the ground.

With help from the nurses, Berkeley, who has four years of EMS experience, began doing CPR.

Less than five minutes after Luis slumped over in his chair, someone brought an AED over.

Berkeley put it on Luis, and shocked him once. The machine then evaluated Luis’s stats. One of the nurses began asking him questions and paused doing CPR, Berkeley turned to tell her to keep going only to find that Luis was awake and answering questions.

It’s extremely rare for someone to be revived after only one shock, Berkeley said.

“Without that, he wouldn’t have survived,” Sundi Perez said of the AED machine.

An ambulance crew arrived and loaded up Perez to take him to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

“I didn’t feel like something happened to me,” Perez said of the ambulance ride. “No pain, just soreness on my chest.”

When he arrived at Sacred Heart, doctors were shocked to see how well he was doing. After some medical testing, the doctors decided to implant a device to defibrillate Luis’ heart if he were ever to go into cardiac arrest again.

A couple days later, the surgery was performed successfully, Perez said. The doctors said the cardiac arrest was caused by an abnormal heartbeat.

The concert, which included Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo,” was delayed about 15 minutes. Brooke Perez was informed about her father and she left before the performance to be with her family.

Life or death

Now a few weeks after the incident, the Perez family is full of gratitude, not only for the people in the crowd who helped them but for each other.

“At times I get a little emotional over it, just the thought that these people jumped in and helped my wife to bring me back to life,” said Perez, who works for a company that makes a device that labels apple crates. “I thank God that those people were there in the audience. I just can’t thank them enough.”

For Berkeley, the experience has been “surreal.” As a police officer he often feels like “a taxi service to jail or the hospital” and rarely finds out what happens to the people he’s trying to help.

“It’s really, really nice when things are able to come full circle,” Berkeley said.

A few days after the incident, Berkeley went to the hospital to meet the Perez family.

The group went to lunch, and as Berkeley watched Perez cut up food for his granddaughter, Berkeley was struck by the extraordinary circumstances that led to Perez being alive.

Many people who have heart attacks or go into cardiac arrest don’t survive, largely due to how long they’re without oxygen, Schaeffer, the fire chief, said.

He works with local businesses and universities, like Gonzaga, to make sure they’re trained in CPR and equipped with AEDs, which drastically increase the odds of survival.

“This guy had every link of that chain dialed in,” Schaffer said.

Gonzaga has gone above and beyond to make sure AEDs are accessible at every corner of campus, Schaeffer said.

The university has approximately 40 AEDs placed across campus and all security officers carry a unit in their car, said Becky Wilkey, director of campus security and public safety.

Minutes matter when a person is in cardiac arrest, each minute without a defibrillator decreases the chance of survival by about 7%, she said.

AEDs recognize the rhythm of a heartbeat or lack thereof and prompts the user what to do or not to do, Wilkey said. Those prompts are helpful not only for bystanders working their first aid skills but for dispatchers and first responders to know what kind of situation they’re walking into.

In Perez’s case, he was last conscious at 7:18 p.m. when he snapped that photo and the shock was administered at 7:24 p.m., meaning he was down for less than 6 minutes.

“That kept him from any neurological or brain damage,” Sundi Perez said. “Without that, he wouldn’t have survived.”

The quick response also meant a faster recovery, she said doctors told her. Instead of going to the intensive care unit when he arrived at the hospital, Luis was taken to a regular hospital room for monitoring, surprising even the emergency room cardiac specialist.

The incident was life-changing for everyone involved.

Berkeley said he has been on “cloud nine” for the past few weeks, especially getting to connect with Perez after the incident.

“It’s just a really wonderful feeling, an extraordinary feeling to get to be a part of that,” he said.

Schaeffer, who went to visit Perez in the hospital, said it’s a good reminder of how first-aid training, AEDs and being willing to help those around you can save lives.

For the Perez family, the incident has been a miracle.

“We’re just praising God that it happened like it did,” Sundi Perez said. “The AED is a lifesaver. Every business should have one with technology these days, because it’s definitely life or death.”

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