Nurse whose heart gave out for 20 minutes meets her 999 lifesaving heroes
A woman whose heart stopped beating for 20 minutes has come face-to-face with the paramedics who saved her life.
Wendy Cunningham has paid tribute to the medical team who gave her a second chance at life when a heart condition took a sudden and deadly turn for the worse.
The 42-year-old nurse was enjoying her weekly swim at Templemore Baths in east Belfast three years ago when her heart stopped beating.
Paramedic Sean Martin was tasked to the scene and had to restart Wendy's heart twice before she was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital for treatment.
Wendy, from Cregagh in east Belfast, faced an epic battle to survive and spent four days in a coma before finally regaining consciousness.
While she knew the role her friends played in her recovery, she desperately wanted to meet in person the paramedics who helped save her life.
And this week her wish finally came true when she was reunited with Sean at the headquarters of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service.
"Everyone thought it would be emotional but it was really happy, we just laughed a lot," she said.
"It was so nice to finally meet Sean and the other paramedics who worked on me that evening.
"I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for them.
"I remember being in the pool and I just didn't feel right during the warm-up.
"This voice in my head told me I had to get out of the water. It was like a voice from God, so I swam over to the edge and that is the last thing I remember."
According to bystanders, Wendy - a cancer research nurse at Belfast City Hospital - pulled herself out of the water and collapsed.
Sean (45), who has been a paramedic for nine years, explained: "I was just round the corner when the call came through. I actually pulled up at the door within a minute of getting the call and when I arrived Wendy's friend was doing CPR on her. She was a nurse as well and knew what she was doing. She was doing a smashing job, so I told her to continue and I got the defibrillator working.
"I shocked her once and we got an output back and then the ambulance crew arrived.
"At this stage Wendy went back into cardiac arrest, so we shocked her again and once she started breathing again we got her to the Royal."
Sean said he was delighted to find out that Wendy had not only survived her ordeal, but had since made a full recovery.
"You do remember certain calls, especially calls like this. They do stick in your head because it is quite rare you get a person back from cardiac arrest," he said.
"Wendy was very ill when I saw her.
"You get to know doctors or nurses in the A&E and you ask them the next time you see them, but they are normally only in a position to tell you the patient was taken to intensive care or another ward.
"The first time I heard how Wendy was doing was when I was told she wanted to meet us.
"I was absolutely delighted to meet her, she is such an inspirational character.
"Meeting her and seeing how well she has done gives you a sense of worth - it makes you feel valued and good about yourself.
"Meeting Wendy has made me realise that you can make a difference."
Wendy was born with the congenital heart condition tetralogy of fallot - a group of four structural deformities of the heart.
She endured her first operation to try and repair her damaged heart when she was just five.
Doctors fitted a pacemaker when she was 32 after they realised that her heartbeat was dropping as low as 18 beats a minute.
She subsequently developed atrial fibrillation, an irregular and often fast heartbeat, but Wendy continued on with life right up until her collapse.
"My heart stopped for 20 minutes, and if it stops for 10 minutes you are at risk of brain damage," she explained.
"I am incredibly lucky to be alive today. I have had more surgery, but I'm back to my dancing, cycling, working, doing everything. My experience has made me appreciate the important things, like turning 40. I must be one of only a few people to be happy about turning 40."