When his heart stopped, lifeguards jumped into action

A heartfelt sense of gratitude

When Bob Lee started swimming laps on that day last June, he didn’t think that he was putting his life in the hands of a couple of teenagers.

Bob and Karen Lee BH YMCA
Bob and Karen Lee

He didn’t have any reason to think anything like that because he felt fine. The 70-year-old had already had a great day. He took care of his five-month-old granddaughter for a few hours and spent a little time with his wife, Karen, and then he mowed his son’s grass. So he headed to the Y to cool off and get a little exercise. Swim fins and resistance gloves in place, he started swimming laps.

And then he woke up to a big jolt.

The doctors don’t know why his heart stopped. But they do know that he’s lucky it stopped where it did … in the pool at the Benjamin Harrison YMCA. That’s where a team of trained life savers, including two then-16-year-olds with three weeks of lifeguarding experience, was ready to literally dive in, collect Bob from the bottom of the pool and save him. One nurse later said that people with heart attacks like Bob’s usually have about a 5% chance of surviving.

“He’s my living miracle,” his wife Karen says.

“My heart just stopped,” Bob says. “It was like driving down the road and your car goes dead.”

Training kicks in

Jair and Tim
Jair and Tim are juniors at Cathedral High School

Sixteen-year-old Jair Zenil was the first to see that Bob was in trouble. Stationed in a lifeguard chair, the Cathedral High School junior dove in and pulled Bob to the side of the pool. In no time, Bob was surrounded by a team of people – 16-year-old Tim Sullivan, head lifeguard Noah Bowen and associate aquatics director John Chapman – who administered CPR and used the automated external defibrillator (AED) to shock Bob’s heart back into rhythm.

Sullivan, also a junior at Cathedral High School, says he wasn’t really thinking too much about how serious the situation was. He was simply using the training he and Zenil had recently received from Benjamin Harrison YMCA Aquatics Director Missy Welling. “I was able to focus on that,” he says. “It was kind of surreal.”

The team was able to revive Bob – “I remember, after we used the AED, he was like shoving me off of him,” Sullivan says with a chuckle – and first responders from the Lawrence police and fire departments arrived soon thereafter. By the time Bob was transported to the St. Vincent Indianapolis, he was conscious and responsive.

The doctors and nurses all told him that the people at the Y did an amazing job. “They said, ‘You’re lucky they knew what to do,’” Bob says. “The folks over at the Y got accolades from every one of the doctors.” Bob spent 10 days in the hospital, where doctors implanted a pacemaker and defibrillator in his chest.

Damage done two decades ago

Lifeguard instruction
Aquatics director Missy Welling provides staff in-service training regularly.

This wasn’t Bob’s first heart attack, but it had been long enough since the last one that he didn’t worry about his heart anymore. In 1999, he felt the heart attack coming on. In fact, he called emergency responders and said, “I’m having a heart attack.”

“He ended up with a quadruple bypass,” Karen says.

Since then, though, Bob has felt fine. In fact, he visited his cardiologist in May and got a good report. He exercises regularly, and the thinks of himself as pretty healthy. “I’m trying to keep this body in decent shape,” he says, adding that he finished up the past bowling season with a 205 average. Karen notes that she didn’t see the latest heart attack coming. Bob had been a little tired lately, she says, but they just assumed that was from getting up early every day to care for their granddaughter.

What they didn’t realize is the damage that ’99 heart attack did to his heart … and that apparently played a part in his finding himself on the side of the pool last June with a bunch of people working to revive him.

‘Very, very, very, very lucky’

Sullivan, who swims competitively for Cathedral, says the events of that day creep into his mind from time to time when he’s in the pool, but he doesn’t dwell on it. “You just kind of push it into the back of your head,” he says. But he adds that family and friends do bring it up occasionally – “They’re proud of it, I guess.”

Bob Q and A with staff
Bob spoke to the Aquatics staff about his experience and thanked them for saving his life.

Talking a few days before the holiday season kicked off, Bob says he’s feeling good, and “very, very, very, very lucky.” Karen says she knows what to be thankful for: “Those lifeguards and wonderful doctors.”


Could this be you?

The YMCA is always in need of lifeguards and swim instructors, and lifeguard, CPR and AED training are starting soon.

Bob knows the importance of fitness for people of all ages. Lap swim, swim lessons, swim team and water fitness classes are also year-round. Find the water fun that’s right for you and your family.

Give the gift of swimming

Proceeds from the YMCA’s Revolution Ball on Jan. 26 and donations to the Y’s Annual Campaign help provide swim lessons and lifeguard training for those who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

— READ MORE ABOUT BOB’S REUNION WITH THE LIFEGUARDS ON THE INDYSTAR —

Heroes BH YMCA
Happy together: Noah, Tim, Bob, Karen, Missy, Jair, Kyle and John