BIG RAPIDS, Mich. – Joey Hirl has that larger-than-life presence you only encounter in very few people. In character, in height and in his booming Boston-accented voice, Joey is full of life.
In speaking to him Wednesday, it’s hard to imagine he died on July 2, 2014.
That Wednesday night, Joey was in bed watching TV. Slowly, then all at once, he began sweating and experiencing chest pains. Not usually one to rush to the hospital for minor pain – or major pain for that matter – Joey knew this time was different.
“I got in the car,” he said, "and I just knew something was wrong. Just had that feeling.”
Joey and his wife Carole headed for a Big Rapids hospital. Joey started behind the wheel, but after the pain worsened, the two switched places. Minutes after his wife took over driving, Joey passed out, and that’s all he remembers.
As the Hirls raced towards the hospital, Dr. Harold Moores was wandering about the emergency room, waiting for a call from a friend in California whose father was dying of cancer. He finally got the call and stepped outside for better reception.
As Dr. Moore pressed his phone to his ear, trying to hear past the poor reception, he began to hear something else. A car pulled into the emergency room entrance, and the female driver was frantic.
“I’m listening on the phone, and she’s yelling to me, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to help me, my husband is dying!'” said Moore. “And I thought, you know, they all say that.”
Then Dr. Moores saw Joey slumped over in the seat. His face was blue, and Dr. Moores could barely pull a pulse. In the time it took for Dr. Moores to get Joey from the car to the hospital room, he died.
But that wasn’t the end.
For 57 agonizing minutes, Dr. Moores and his team performed CPR on Joey, getting a pulse and losing it again over and over and over.
“Just as we’re getting ready to stop, we’ll get a heartbeat,” said Dr. Moores. “We could feel it -- a pulse. We’d see it on the rhythm strip. Once we saw it then we’d think we’ve made it, we’re doing something good. It’d last a minute, maybe two minutes, then it was gone.”
“To be that far into it and get a pulse told me that something was going on: he wanted to live.”
And live he did. After nearly an hour of CPR and medicines, Joey was able to sustain a heartbeat on his own.
But the doctors weren’t in the clear yet. Joey spent the next 17 days on life support before he was released from the hospital. And as for his experience during all this, he only remembers one thing: seeing his mother, who had passed away some time ago.
“I actually remembered seeing her,” said Hirl, “and she said, ‘Joey, it’s not your time. You have to go back.’”
It's safe to say that Joey is using death to shape his newfound outlook on life.
“It’s still a reality check for someone to face their own mortality,” he said. “It’s actually heartbreaking. It really is. I mean, you wake up and you learn that you died. And I’ll tell you, it’s a wakeup call. Truly, it’s a wake-up call.”
And though many may be inclined to think so, Joey stops short of calling his amazing recovery a miracle. Instead, he takes a more realistic approach when explaining the unexplainable, citing good care and a well-trained staff at Big Rapids Hospital for this miraculous event.
“Everybody, from coming in the ER that night to my last day at cardio rehab, everybody has made me feel 100 percent safe,” said Joey, "and that I was going to make it through all this and I was going to be alright. And today, I am alright.”
“I wanted to thank everybody. How do you thank somebody for such a great gift? 'Thank you?' You know, that just doesn’t seem like enough. Dying is the easy part. They had the hard part -- bringing me back.”
And though doctors will and do tell him his gratitude is quite enough, Joey is set on doing more. He has become a poster child for Spectrum Health to spread a message about early detection and early prevention.
Joey even speaks at classes for future life-savers, to let them see the importance of the work they do. Dr. Moores teaches many of those classes and says Joey’s testimony is often the most notable part for many of his trainees.
There’s another part to Joey’s message as well. After all he’s been through, he urges anyone willing to listen that life is about more than living, it’s about taking advantage of every second because you can never be sure how many seconds you have left.
“We take every day for granted,” said Joey. “With my son, if he came up and I was too busy, I had a rough day, we might not have tomorrow so let’s do it now. I mean, live life. That’s the biggest thing.”
It’s funny, but ask Joey and he’ll tell you: dying, really can make you feel alive.