PALMER — Norman Knaak, 55, thought it was just nervous stress when he began to feel a woozy wave crash over his body during a final presentation in one of his nursing classes at Mat-Su College Thursday.

In the intensive care unit at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center on Friday, Knaak said he began to feel like he’d just given blood, then he tipped forward and fell onto the floor.

His classmates rushed to his side and checked for a pulse and breathing. Knaak said he was told that he had no pulse, but was struggling to breathe.

“I was really struggling and fighting for life,” Knaak said.

In medical terms, he experienced “sudden cardiac death with witnessed ventricular fibrillation arrest,” Mat-Su Regional Marketing Manager Nicole Caldarea said, reading from his chart.

Knaak doesn’t remember much from the time his heart stopped until he arrived at the Palmer hospital for emergency care, but in the ambulance en route his heart stopped twice more, Caldarea said.

She said it still gives her chills to think about how lucky Knaak was May 2.

“If he’d been anywhere else,” she said. “It still gives me goose bumps.”

Surviving a widow-maker heart attack like the one that took down Knaak is unusual — even in a hospital, Caldarea said.

She said a lot of credit goes to his fellow students in the nursing and paramedic programs at Mat-Su College who sprang into action, started CPR and used an oxygen bag to deliver two breaths for every 30 compressions to keep his blood oxygenated and moving.

Nursing classmates ran across the hall and told the paramedic students there what was going on. They grabbed oxygen and an automatic external defibrillator and ran to help him, Knaak said.

“That’s how you save somebody — jump right in there and put some pressure on it,” he said. “I have nothing but very, very good words to say about those people.”

A paramedic in the class also works for Mat-Su Borough’s Emergency Services Department and used his radio to call dispatch with a size up while an ambulance hurried to the scene to stabilize him for transport to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, Caldarea said.

‘This runs in our family’

At the hospital, Knaak said doctors did a CT scan to check for a clot in his lungs. When those pictures came back clean, doctors moved him to the cardiac cath lab, he said.

Knaak said he was awake when doctors in the cath lab placed two stents in to his heart through the femoral artery in his groin area.

It is only recently that Mat-Su Regional has offered cardiac cath lab services, Caldarea said. Now the hospital is looking to expand the lab to add more cardiac services.

Knaak said he recognized some of the team of medical personnel crowded around his bed Thursday as familiar faces he’d seen teaching him as a student. The whole procedure lasted about 15 minutes, Knaak said. That’s partly because the blockages were in two straight stretches in the heart’s warren of vessels and were relatively easy to repair, he said.

“It went essentially perfect, as far as I’m concerned,” Knaak said of the emergency stent procedure.

He said it is his responsibility to use diet, exercise and medication to keep the stents clear.

“Now I know where I stand,” he said. “It’s up to me.”

Recovering in the ICU on Friday, Knaak said he’d been on the phone with his mother that morning urging her to see that his two brothers get checked out.

“This runs in our family,” he said.

Knaak said people like his family who are predisposed to blockages should find a good heart doctor and get checked.

“I never had any chest pains,” he said.

Knaak and his wife, Terri Paulson, are thankful for this happy ending and say they hope their story will help other people realize how quickly life can change.

“Everybody from start to finish did their job perfectly and it was wonderful,” Paulson said. “And their efforts are greatly appreciated. Thank you.”

Contact managing editor Heather A. Resz at 352-2268 or

I've been the managing editor of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman since September 2010. This is my second time working at the Frontiersman. I was the assistant editor here from 1996 to 1998.

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