This Christmas, Todd Rains finally understands what it means to experience a miracle.
The 44-year-old Wadsworth man can’t remember anything from the day his heart stopped beating.
His mind has blocked out all memories from that early morning in August when he suddenly collapsed on a highway while riding his bike in the second leg of a triathlon.
But now he’ll never forget the two strangers whose expert actions in the middle of a grueling race in downtown Cleveland ensured he would live to celebrate this holiday season with his wife and three young daughters.
“I get to be a miracle this Christmas,” he said. “God has a plan and they are part of it. They are my angels.”
Ready to race
Rains never competed in a triathlon before a friend encouraged him in April to begin training for the race in Cleveland on Aug. 4.
The idea appealed to the self-employed salesman, who was scared into hiring a personal trainer and getting physically active a couple years ago after two people he knows suffered heart attacks in their 40s.
Rains went to the Wadsworth YMCA five days a week to swim laps for 40 minutes. Three times a week, he rode his bike for 15 miles or longer and regularly went running.
When he occasionally felt slight discomfort in his chest as he trained, he attributing the pain to pushing himself physically.
“You worked out hard, it’s supposed to hurt,” he thought.
About a month before the big event, his wife, Kelly, encouraged him to get a physical, which gave him a clean bill of health.
“I was in the best shape of my life,” Rains said. “I felt fine.”
Rains woke up early and left their home about 5:30 on the unseasonably cool August morning, with temperatures in the low 60s.
“He was excited,” his wife recalled. “He had done all the training, so he was pretty pumped up.”
His wife and their 11-year-old oldest daughter went later to Cleveland to watch him compete in the race, starting with a 0.4-mile swim in the cool waters of Lake Erie by East Ninth Street.
Dr. Humberto Choi was among the athletes in his heat.
Choi, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist, had recently joined the staff at the Cleveland Clinic after finishing his fellowship there in June.
Choi started running marathons and then participating in triathlons while completing his training in internal medicine in Chicago. Though his fellowship left him little time to train, he was looking forward to the Cleveland event, his third triathlon.
Behind the men, Dr. Melani Sherman was swimming strong with the female competitors in the triathlon.
She starting competitive swimming at age 8 and then added track in high school and cycling in college.
The Brooklyn native came to Akron General for her emergency medicine residency two years ago to be closer to her mother’s family, who live in the Cleveland area. Wherever she lives, she likes to take on the challenge of a race in the region.
Doctors perform CPR
Rains smiled confidently at his wife and daughter after he stripped off his wet suit and wheeled his bike out of the transition area for the next leg of the race — a 16-mile bike ride.
The two cheered and waved when he pedaled past them about 20 minutes later for the first loop of the bike ride along Cleveland’s Shoreway. Then they waited for him to ride by again.
He never did.
Choi was nearing the end of the second loop of the bike portion of the race when he saw a man lying in the road with people around him.
Without hesitation, he jumped off his bike and said: “Hey, I’m a doctor. I can help.”
Bystanders told him they thought the man had a seizure.
Choi noticed the fellow competitor was turning blue and gasping for air. His eyes were dilated. He had no pulse.
“This is not a seizure,” he told the crowd. “This is much worse. This is cardiac arrest. We have to begin chest compressions.”
Despite being exhausted from swimming and cycling, Choi immediately began pressing his hands firmly on the man’s chest.
An unidentified woman counted to help him keep his rhythm. Another man helped administer mouth-to-mouth.
Within minutes, Sherman rode by the scene and immediately stopped her bike.
“I’m an ER doctor,” she said. “I want to help.”
Together, the two doctors took turns administering chest compressions until an ambulance arrived.
Despite their efforts, neither was optimistic the man would survive after nearly 15 minutes of CPR.
When asked later what he thought the odds were that Rains would survive, the critical care doctor estimated 15 percent.
“With our chest compressions, he would have a pulse maybe for a second and then go back into cardiac arrest,” Choi said. “I thought he passed.”
Stranded in the middle of the race with just their bikes, the doctors continued the triathlon and finished the final, 3.1-mile run to the end.
Sherman kept repeating the fallen athlete’s bib number in her head so she could tell race officials when she finished to help notify his family. She had to finish the race for him.
“134 … 134 … 134 …”
Worst fears come true
When she didn’t see him after an hour, Rains’ wife knew something was horribly wrong. His brother and father, who met them at the race, tried to reassure her Rains was fine.
But she heard an ambulance and feared the worst.
She asked a race official and found out someone went down during the bike portion of the race.
“I think it’s my husband,” she said. “How do I find out?”
By using his bib number, the race officials were finally able to confirm it was her husband who suffered a heart problem during the race.
She learned paramedics had shocked his heart back into rhythm after two athletes kept him alive by administering CPR in the street. Witnesses said at least one was a doctor.
Rains was taken to Lutheran Hospital and then transferred to Fairview Hospital, where his body temperature was cooled to reduce the risk of neurological damage.
Tests showed at least three of his major coronary arteries were severely blocked. He also suffered three mini strokes.
As he slowly stabilized, his family kept wondering: Who were the people who saved his life?
Finding his heroes
In the days that followed the race, both doctors kept thinking about the man they feared had died.
Sherman waited a day to contact the race director for an update, bracing for the expected bad news. Instead, she found out he had survived and his relatives were trying to find the people who saved him.
She visited Rains as he recovered in the hospital and has since kept in touch with him and his family.
“I do feel after this that there’s a reason I’m supposed to be here,” she said.
Meanwhile, Rains’ family kept searching for the other doctor.
Ten days after the race, his brother read a sports column on the Plain Dealer’s website about how Cleveland Cavs star and Brazilian native Anderson Varejao had recently helped the non-English speaking mother and brother of Cleveland Clinic doctor Humberto Choi. Varejao served as translator and navigator after they were stuck at the airport when their flight to Brazil was unexpectedly canceled.
In the article, Choi mentioned that earlier that same day, he had performed CPR on another participant in the Cleveland Triathlon who collapsed during the cycling portion of the race.
Matt Rains quickly tracked down Choi at his Cleveland Clinic office and called him.
Several hours later, Choi came to visit Rains at Summa Akron City Hospital, where he had been transferred to await open-heart surgery.
Rains sat up in his bed and said a heartfelt “thank you” as the men embraced with tears in their eyes.
“What do you say?” Rains asked. “It’s just amazing that this guy did what he did and was a willing participant.”
Best Christmas ever
Rains underwent successful quintuple bypass surgery at Summa Akron City Hospital on Aug. 19. Despite a few setbacks, he recently completed cardiac rehabilitation and is expected to make a complete recovery.
His cardiologist at Summa, Dr. Roger B. Chaffee, credits the expert CPR administered immediately after his heart stopped beating for helping him beat the odds.
Only about one in 20 people who go into cardiac arrest outside of a hospital survive.
“The problem is you don’t get as good of blood profusion with CPR as you get with a normal heart,” Chaffee said. “The longer you do CPR, the more likely the patient is going to have really bad permanent brain damage, which Todd, as far as we can tell, had none.
“The people who did CPR on Todd must have done very, very good CPR. It’s a tribute to them.”
Rains is thankful to spend time this holiday season with his wife and their three daughters, Lundyn, 11; Delaney, 8; and Faith, 4.
Choi and Sherman joined Rains and his family at their annual holiday gathering this past weekend to celebrate a year none of them will ever forget.
“This is by far our best Christmas ever,” Rains said. “Every once in a while, I have to pinch myself. I’m here.”
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell