Physicians and nurses crowded around their lifeless patient in the Community Hospital South intensive care unit, unsure what to do next.

Sonny Rooney had suffered massive cardiac arrest 45 minutes earlier. Medical personnel has rushed to revive him with CPR, but even after five rounds, his heart wouldn’t keep a rhythm. He was dead.

But a pair of nurses, who had lost another patient earlier that day, asked for one more chance.

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“They said they weren’t going to lose one more person that day, that I was too young to die,” Rooney said, recalling what he’d been told afterwards. “They kept with the compressions and tried again, and it brought me back.”

Rooney will never forget the dedication that Community staff showed in saving his life. Every year in mid-December, he comes back to Community Hospital South to thank the nurses and doctors there. The visits let him laugh and cry with those who gave him a chance to change his life and retake control of his health.

And he’s done that. In the five years since his heart attack, Rooney has gone from 355 pounds to around 200. He vigilantly plans the food he puts in his body, and exercises six days a week.

Rodney’s near-death experience was the low point of his life. But in surviving, he has taken advantage of his second chance to become an example to other patients.

“He is a model of true health. He followed to the letter-of-the-law every instruction we gave him. He changed his lifestyle, takes all the medication he is supposed to take,” said Dr. DeoVrat Singh, interventional cardiologist for Community Health Network. “You can’t recognize him from what he was, and his heart has improved.”

At the heart of Rooney’s transformation has been a complete revision of his diet.

He avoids fatty foods, choosing lean protein such as fish or poultry combined with vegetables and fruits. Though he does eat almonds, cashews and other nuts, he has all but cut out saturated fat. Sweet dark chocolate, 70 percent cocoa and organic, is the closest he comes to dessert

His “cheat” is to grab Indian food — chicken and vegetable curry — on Sundays.

Rooney estimates he eats 10 times a day, mixing in smaller meals with protein-packed snacks to keep him going.

“I eat like a king in the morning, a prince in the afternoon and a squire at night. Then I snack throughout the day,” he said. “Portion-wise, I eat more than I ever have. It’s just that I spread it out and eat the right things.”

That wasn’t the case five years ago.

Rooney lived on fast food. A corporate trainer for a cellphone company, he traveled across the country. His diet was dominated by potatoes, cheese and meat. Breakfast was almost always bacon and eggs. Before bed, he’d drink a glass of chocolate milk.

He was constantly eating out, and always opted for burgers, fries and soda over healthier options.

“Every Friday, I had a tradition. I’d go to McDonald’s and order a quarter-pounder with cheese, a cheeseburger and super-size the fries,” he said. “My joke with them was, don’t ever dare get me a Diet Coke. I wouldn’t order this all if I was on a diet.”

The lifestyle had devastated his health. Though he didn’t know it, he had Type 2 diabetes. His kidneys and liver were damaged. And at 38 years old, he had a massive heart attack.

While on a business trip training a group in Marion, Rooney woke up feeling sick. His stomach was upset and he was vomiting, but his chest didn’t hurt and he wasn’t experiencing numbness in his arms, the usual telltale signs of a heart attack.

So he worked through it. He struggled through the day, and by the evening, felt well enough to drive back home to Indianapolis. The following day, he went back to work through he still didn’t feel great.

By the third day of experiencing his symptoms, Rooney suspected something more serious was wrong. His heart felt strange, and seemed to be beating harder than usual.

“My heart felt like it was doing 9,000 RPMs. Not a lot of pain, just like it was overworking, like the engine of your car was overworking,” he said.

Rooney finally decided to go to Community Hospital South, which was maybe 10 minutes away from his home. He came to the emergency department, telling the nurse at the front desk that he thought he was having a heart attack.

Within seconds, he was in a wheelchair and on his way to be examined. He was hooked up to an electrocardiogram machine, which immediately revealed the extent of the damage.

His arteries were clogged with plaque and clots. The acute heart attack required catheterization, with a balloon stent to open up the blocked blood vessel. An external pacemaker helped maintain a rhythm.

Though his condition stabilized, five hours into his recovery, Rooney went into cardiac arrest.

He doesn’t remember many of the details surrounding his near-death experience. From what others have told him, he had been talking with his wife, Jeannette, when he complained about his chest hurting. The nurse who came to check on him thought it may be lingering pain from the trauma of the heart attack.

Minutes later, his heart stopped.

“We were talking, and the next thing I remember is waking up on life support,” he said.

Chaos ensued, as Rooney’s family members shouted for help. Lori Buntin, a registered nurse in the intensive care unit, was caring for Rooney for most of the day. She had received him back from the cath lab, and had closely watched his condition in the hours that followed.

“He was having a lot of irregular rhythms that day, and we were watching him closely. I had kind of a weird feeling about it,” Buntin said.

The nursing staff shifts were able to change, and another registered nurse, Anne Stines, was set to take over. At that moment, Rooney’s heart stopped. Stines and Buntin were the first two in his room, and went to work administering CPR.

The medical team went through round after round of CPR, making sure that oxygen was reaching his other organs. Rooney’s heart would start beating weakly, but would stop after a few beats. Doctors and nurses started discussing if it was time to pronounce him dead.

Stines came up with an unorthodox idea — using an anti-arrhythmia drug that was no longer used to help stabilize the heart.

“The doctor was getting ready to call it, to pronounce him dead, and I said, ‘No, he’s my age. We’re not stopping,’” Buntin said.

That last attempt was successful.

“He was dead in the hospital, even after going through long CPR,” Singh said. “I told him he’s a miracle of life. Very few people walk away from what he went through.”

For the next two days, Rooney was on life-support. Even then, doctors were unsure if he’d survive. But slowly, he improved. After three days, he woke up.

Unable to talk due to the tubes that had been in his throat, he made a motion that he wanted to write something. His first question to his wife was, “I died, didn’t I?” Then his second question was, “Did the Colts win?”

“(Jeannette) looked at me like, ‘Are you serious?’ But that was my way of letting her know that everything was going to be OK,” he said.

When Rooney was strong enough for surgery, he had a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted in his chest. As he recovered from the surgeries, Singh laid out his options.

“We had long discussions with him about changing his lifestyle. He had to reverse these factors that gave you these blockages to begin with,” Singh said. “The only reason that we’ve been successful with that is that he’s been our partner in the care. We tell all our patients that we can reverse what’s happened and take good care of you if you are a partner in the process. And he has fully adopted that.”

Rooney remembers their last conversation as being more succinct. He was preparing to be released from the hospital, sitting on the end of the hospital bed, when Singh approached him.

“He sat down and told me I had two options, A or B. And I’d already tried option A. When I went home, what was going to be my choice?” he said. “That really hit me in the face, that when I went back home, I’d have to change. If not, six months down the road, where would I be?”

The process started slowly. At first, all Rooney could do was walk around his house. He’d take one lap then rest. Then he increased to two laps, then five. Eventually, he was doing dozens of laps

Rooney also took advantage of cardiovascular rehabilitation therapy. He would come back to Community for 36 sessions to exercise, while doctors monitored every aspect of his heart to ensure it was getting stronger but not pushing too hard.

“It’s like a muscle in sports. If you get hurt, there’s rehab and you go through it to get healthy. The heart is a muscle, and you have to rework it,” he said.

More difficult was altering his diet. Rooney knew that he couldn’t eat like he had before, but he couldn’t imagine a life without fried food or cheeseburgers.

He didn’t even eat vegetables, he said.

But he was determined to change his life. He and Jeannette Rooney sat down and planned out meals and recipes that were healthy as well as flavorful.

“Our running joke was that I’d look like a bald Thor, or die trying,” he said.

As Rooney grew stronger, he increased his physical activity. He transitioned from walking to riding a stationary bicycle and lifting light weights. Over the course of a year, he built his own home gym, so he could devote more time to exercise.

When it’s nice out, he and his wife go hiking. Small decisions, such as parking in far-away spots at the grocery store or mall, help add a little more physical activity to his day.

Six days a week, he hits the gym at 4:30 a.m. for a 45-minute workout.

With his dietary regimen and constant activity, he shed pounds quickly. He continued to lose weight, dipping as low as 178 pounds. But with his active lifestyle and strength training, he has found that 200 is a better weight for his frame.

By moving away from fried foods, sugar and salt, Rooney has also opened up his palate to new tastes. The Rooneys now live near Avon, and their kitchen features a massive spice rack filled with different healthy ingredients.

They use Ceylon cinnamon and honey to give foods sweetness, and herbs and spices offer bountiful flavor in a healthy way. Pepper is Rooney’s favorite ingredient.

His transformation is so ingrained that even smelling fried food can make him nauseous.

Rooney is often at Community Hospital South for checkups to ensure his heart is still functioning properly. He’ll run into nurses that helped treat him after his heart attack, and they won’t recognize him.

His success is a boon to the staff that worked with him, Buntin said.

“It makes us feel that what we do does change people’s lives, that they take our advice to heart. A lot of times, we care more about people’s health problems than they do,” she said. “We don’t always get to see the outcomes of the hard work we do, so it’s very rewarding for him to come and say thank you.”

Rooney likes maintaining the connection to those who helped him so much. He likes to visit with them, see how they’ve been and let them know that all of their work has paid off, at least for him.

“That’s why I enjoy coming back every year. These guys brought me back, and they didn’t give up on me,” Rooney said. “Every day is a good day with my feet above ground.”

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Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.