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Heart rescue

An EMT from a family of community servants, Robert Eddy hopes his gift advances the U's research into improving survival rates after sudden cardiac arrest. (Photo: Jason Wachter)

Emergency responder aims to improve the odds for those who experience sudden cardiac arrest

Because he’s hardwired to help, Robert Eddy ’74, a philanthropist and volunteer Sherburne County Sheriff’s deputy, former firefighter, and EMT, has made it his life’s mission to bring more people back to life after sudden cardiac arrest.

“I grew up in a family that focused on community service,” Eddy says from his home in Big Lake, Minn. “My mother was a nurse. My father was a firefighter. My grandfather was the police chief and the fire chief.”

So it only made sense that Eddy would follow in his family’s footsteps. But the now-retired telecommunications executive’s volunteerism has been flavored by a nagging sense that more could be done to save people whose hearts have suddenly stopped.

While cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) has saved countless lives, Eddy knows firsthand that it is imperfect: “In my role as an emergency responder, I’ve had to learn — and use — CPR several times,” he says. In cases of sudden cardiac arrest, he adds, “My personal record is 0-4.” Though that number should not feel surprising — the American Heart Association reports that less than 8 percent of people who experience cardiac arrest outside a hospital survive — for the results-oriented Eddy, such a lopsided record is not acceptable.

This year, Eddy decided to do something about it. He donated $2 million to the University of Minnesota to create the R. K. Eddy Endowed Chair in Cardiovascular Resuscitation, designed to support research dedicated to improving cardiac arrest survival rates.

“This just seemed to fit well for me,” Eddy says. “It was something I had an interest in, and I believe that there are scientists at the University who really have the potential to make significant progress in this research. It’s an exciting opportunity.”

Demetri Yannopoulos, M.D., is improving on today's best CPR techniques to better protect the heart, work that recently earned him the National Institutes of Health's Transformative Research Award. (Photo: Scott Streble)

Safeguarding the heart

One of the scientists is the University’s Demetri Yannopoulos, M.D., associate professor of medicine, research director of interventional cardiology, and director of the Minnesota Resuscitation Consortium. He is evaluating novel therapies that may extend survival rates for victims of sudden cardiac arrest by protecting the heart and brain from damage created by the absence of blood flow and oxygen delivery during the arrest — as well as the damage caused by lifesaving CPR and resuscitation efforts.

Sudden cardiac arrest damages heart tissue because it restricts or eliminates blood and oxygen flow to the body. Traditional resuscitation efforts like CPR, although necessary to save lives, can also damage tissue, because they forcefully push blood and oxygen to the heart and vital organs. This damage is called reperfusion injury.

Yannopoulos is seeking ways to minimize or avoid that damage. “My colleagues and I are trying to identify ways to create a protective barrier around the cells of vital organs before the injury occurs and immediately at the initiation of resuscitation efforts,” he explains.

One promising approach involves collaboration with Joseph Metzger, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology, and Frank Bates, Ph.D., Regents Professor and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, on a molecular “Band-Aid” designed to keep cell membranes from leaking during heart attacks and cardiac arrest.

“Clinicians have gotten really good at helping humans survive their first heart attack,” Metzger says. “But they’ve now set themselves up for the cycle of heart failure. When tissue is damaged during resuscitation, the squeezing action of the heart gets weaker and weaker. So we need to develop more ways to safeguard the heart.”

Bright future

Eddy is particularly excited about a major breakthrough spearheaded by Yannopoulos and his team. In research trials, they have been able to resuscitate a pig that has had no heartbeat for up to 18 minutes (until recently, scientists believed resuscitation was impossible after 10 to 12 minutes). To achieve such results, the scientists employ a series of pauses in compressions and a dose of inhaled anesthetic within the first three minutes of CPR followed by administration of the molecular Band-Aid to protect cell membranes from breakdown.

Those results, Yannopoulos adds, have “enormous implications in the field.”

Will the research one day markedly reduce fatality rates for people experiencing sudden cardiac arrest? That’s the goal, and that’s what excites Robert Eddy.

“Treatments are advancing rapidly,” Eddy says. “Awareness is growing. I believe the day will come when there will be a Trivial Pursuit question that asks, ‘When was the last day someone in the United States died of [sudden cardiac arrest]?’ And we’ll get to say, ‘It was those guys at the University of Minnesota who figured this out.’”

By Andy Steiner

To learn more about supporting resuscitation research at the University of Minnesota, please contact Amanda Storm Schuster at or 612-626-2475.

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