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'It wasn't his time to go': Life-saving response enables professor to return to classroom

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Rune Simeonsson, 78, walks at Alice Keene District Park. He is scheduled to return to teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this week following a cardiac arrest incident that nearly cost him his life. "(Teaching is) something I felt very privileged to do," he said. "You get to work with young people. You get to talk about things that are important to you, and somebody says it's worth giving me a salary. What more could you ask for?"

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Whether he is standing in a college lecture hall or seated among child development colleagues in Europe or Asia, Professor Rune Simeonsson feels quite at home making speeches.

Yet addressing a group of about half a dozen people in a small town last month was a bit of a challenge.

This talk was different, he reminded those gathered Dec. 12 for a Pine Knoll Shores Board of Commissioners meeting.

“I said, 'I'm used to giving speeches, but it's not the kind I can do,’” he recalled. “Usually I'm talking about a subject. In this case I am the subject.”

Then, in relatively few words, he expressed his gratitude for those who saved him and whose efforts helped make it possible for him to continue the life he loves.

Simeonsson, 78, a professor of school psychology and early childhood education, will return to the classroom this week at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he has taught for more than four decades. Two months ago, no one knew for sure whether or not he would ever give another lecture or speak again on behalf of children with disabilities.

On Nov. 11, he collapsed while running at Pine Knoll Shores. He had suffered cardiac arrest and was unresponsive.

The Hillsborough resident seemed an unlikely candidate for a heart attack. He watched his weight, ate a healthy diet and exercised regularly, having competed in two marathons and more half marathons than he can recall. In 2011, Simeonsson ran in Greenville's Dash for Cash, placing first among men over 60. In 2012, he won first place again, this time in the category for men over 70.

“To me, he's the example of it's not necessarily somebody you would think of,” his daughter, Krissy Simeonsson, a Greenville pediatrician, said. “It's not somebody who kind of sweats when they walk up stairs and they're overweight and they smoke and you go, 'That guy's a heart attack waiting to happen.' My dad, nobody saw this coming.”

An avid runner for more than 40 years, Simeonsson routinely spends an hour every other day covering four to five miles. It is a habit he has kept up even when traveling internationally with his work.

“It's the best way to get to know a new place because you're not in a car. You actually see the life of the community or the city,” he said. “I've found that very rewarding. Most places that I've run, I feel very safe.”

Simeonsson certainly had no reason to fear for his safety when he set out for a run on Veterans Day. He and his wife, Nancy, were visiting their son, Joe, and his wife, Robin, in Pine Knoll Shores, a Carteret County town with a population of about 1,500.

Although the day’s events took an unexpected turn, it is hard to imagine a safer place that Simeonsson could have picked to go for a run.

“A police officer was on his routine beat; he saw my dad running,” Krissy Simeonsson said. “The end of his patrol was about a mile and a half past where he saw my dad. He turned his car around and by the time he came back, my dad was already on the ground and somebody had stopped.”

Kyle O'Connor, who had joined the department two months earlier, took the automated external defibrillator from his car and radioed for Sgt. Cory Bishop, a fellow police officer and trained paramedic. The two used the AED, a device that administers an electric shock to allow the heart to re-establish an effective rhythm, and treated Simeonsson until firefighters and emergency medical technicians arrived.

“When you read about the statistics of sudden cardiac arrest out of the hospital, it's not good,” Krissy Simeonsson said. “It's very grim, and folks that do survive lose some cognitive function at the very least.”

According to the American Heart Association, of the more than 350,000 incidences of cardiac arrest occurring outside of hospitals in 2016, fewer than half of the victims received cardiopulmonary resuscitation from a bystander. The survival rate – defined as living long enough to be discharged from the hospital – was 12 percent.

In a decade as a paramedic, Bishop, who teaches free CPR classes for the Town of Pine Knoll Shores, can count on one hand the number of people like Simeonsson that he has seen leave the hospital.

“Rune Simeonsson was very special because I literally saw him dead and then got to see him alive,” he said. “I don't mean to be morbid, but he didn't have a heartbeat and he wasn't breathing. Medically, he was dead. Then from the care and the teamwork from on the side of the road to Carteret Health Care to Carolina East Medical Center, he's out walking around today. That's not common at all.

“I truly believe all the stars aligned for him that day or he wouldn't be alive,” Bishop said. “Everything just lined up in his favor. As fate had it, it wasn't his time to go.”

Krissy Simeonsson agrees. She believes that because of the training of the first responders and the availability of the AED, her father fared better in Pine Knoll Shores than he would have if he had been in her home.

“If my husband (Dr. Pat McGee) had been home, we might have been OK, but we don't have a defibrillator,” she said. “I just look at my dad and think that was the difference in having him for Thanksgiving and Christmas and not.

“I told my dad, 'I don't think there were many other places this could have happened that you would have done this well,'” she said. “It is so rare for people to have their life almost jerked away and then handed back to them full.”

Simeonsson, who underwent triple bypass surgery following cardiac arrest, is expected to make a complete recovery.

“He still remembers foreign languages that he learned growing up,” Krissy Simeonsson said, laughing. “His vocabulary's still better than mine. He's completely back.”

Simeonsson has begun walking for exercise but has not yet been allowed to return to running. While “When can I run again?” was one of the first questions he asked following surgery, it may be several months before he can do so.

Still, just eight weeks after his collapse, he is ready to head back to the classroom. He wants to thank students and colleagues for their show of support while he was away. Cards and letters from associates across the world flooded his daughter's mailbox while Simeonsson recovered in her home for several weeks after surgery.

“The volume of physical mail and cards and concern and expressions of affection and support really has been very, very touching to me,” Simeonsson said. “Any event like this will really have you reflect on life and what friendships and relationships are about. I can't say enough about that. It's just been very wonderful for me to know that I've got friends in so many places who immediately responded.”

While Simeonsson has cherished the time with his family, he is eager to return to his life's work, which, over the last two decades has involved working with the World Health Organization to develop a version of the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health for Children and Youth.

The son of Swedish missionaries to China, he considers this to be his calling. Having his life spared will not change his profession, but it has altered his perspective.

“It's not like tomorrow I'm going to drastically change my life and go into a ministry,” said Simeonsson, who added that faith is a central part of his life. “But from my perspective, I want to make sure I'm doing good and doing what I'm supposed to be doing here on behalf of children.

“It's not a drastic reorientation but really a recognition that every day is precious, and we have to take advantage of opportunities and not waste them.”

As news of his experience has spread, Simeonsson is beginning to receive opportunities to speak on a new topic – the value of CPR training and the importance of making AED devices available. He is not only a skilled orator, he is also a perfect example that these two things save lives.

“It's not that I have any expertise in the topic, but I am sort of the evidence of how that is done,” Simeonsson said.

“This is what these professionals do, and they do it well,” he said. “I'm just grateful, so grateful.”

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