How to save a life: Friend springs into action after heart attack

Published 9:47 am Thursday, January 24, 2013

Lynn Cunningham and Helen Jahr sit together at Cunningham's home Wednesday morning. Jahr recently won an award from the Mower County Red Cross for saving Cunningham's life during a heart attack. -- Eric Johnson/

Lynn Cunningham is glad to see Helen Jahr receive a Freeborn-Mower County Red Cross award today. After all, Jahr is the reason Cunningham is still alive.

Jahr identified signs that Cunningham was having a heart attack one late September day in 2011 and drove her to the emergency room where Cunningham would stay for several days.

“It’s wonderful,” Cunningham said. “It’s wonderful to be able to honor my friend.”

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The day Cunningham had a heart attack wasn’t so wonderful, however. At 61 years old, Cunningham was still jogging, biking and keeping as active as ever, and she had just picked up yoga classes. Earlier that morning, she thought she hurt her hands going through various yoga poses. Her hands still throbbed with pain that afternoon when her and Jahr went out for a five-mile run.

“I was cursing my yoga teacher going, ‘she made me hyperextend my hand,’” Cunningham recalls.

Jahr said at first she didn’t take Cunningham’s hands seriously, but as Cunningham told how her thumbs still hurt from yoga, Jahr grew worried.

“That threw up a red flag,” Jahr said. “She was commenting on how out of shape she was feeling, yet she hadn’t broken pace.”

Jahr said eventually Cunningham was trying to run while elevating her hands, and Jahr wanted to flag someone down for help, but they were approaching Cunningham’s home.

“We got to her house, and she said man, my thumbs just really hurt, and I said, ‘OK, lets wrap your thumbs in an ice pack,’” Jahr said.

Cunningham didn’t think her hands hurting were that serious, but she eventually found out that sort of pain can signal a heart attack in women.

“Helen, she zeroed in on extremely unusual symptoms,” Cunningham said. “The public doesn’t know that. We know what [symptoms] men have, but women are far different.”

Jahr noted the time they came back to the house, as well as when Cunningham’s symptoms worsened. She went to get some aspirin for Cunningham, who was busy trying to ice her thumbs. When Jahr came back, Cunningham was laying on her couch, ice on her chest.

“I told her, ‘You’re going to go to the emergency room,’” Jahr said. “I know Lynn, and the things that she was saying were sending up red flags.”

Cunningham — who has always been physically fit as a massage therapist and medical assistant, and whose family has no history of heart conditions — wasn’t ready to go to the hospital at first.

“I said, ‘Over my dead body, we are not going to the emergency room, there’s nothing wrong with me,’” Cunningham said.

Eventually Jahr convinced Cunningham to go, and the two were at the Austin hospital inside of an hour from when Cunningham complained to Jahr on their run.

Cunningham’s bloodwork didn’t initially show a heart attack, but doctors kept her overnight, eventually finding the signs they were looking for. Once Cunningham went to St. Marys Hospital in Rochester, doctors told her they found a 99 percent blockage in one of her major arteries and put two stents in her heart.

“She never would have made it,” Jahr said. “We were very lucky that she went in when she did.”

Cunningham is still going through cardiac rehab, and still is as active as ever, though she did say she’s not up to 100 percent as a 63-year-old today.

Jahr, a certified Red Cross First Aid/CPR/AED instructor, will receive the Certificate of Merit at 1 p.m. today, the highest award given by the American Red Cross to someone or a group of people who saves someone’s life using skills taught by the Red Cross.

“I’m definitely honored,” Jahr said. “I’m honored by that, and I’m happy for Lynn, because I know that this was a huge episode in her life.”