William “Kim” Cress’ story begins at 7:20 p.m. Sunday, March 22, 2020. He’s at home in Rowan County, laying on the sofa watching “60 Minutes,” when his wife, Teresa, asks him a question and he doesn’t answer.

There was a good reason for that, which he is eager to share, especially during National Heart Health Month in February. Who better to inspire us to take good care of ourselves than a retired firefighter who died and came back to life with a mission?

Dr. Kobina Wilmot is Cress’ cardiologist. He practices at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute in Mooresville. He is so enamored with Cress’ zest for life and willingness to tell people all about it that he reminds his office to schedule extra time for Cress’ appointments.

Wilmot considers Cress a poster child, of sorts, for other patients. In matters of the heart, Wilmot said, Cress’ spirit is nearly as important as medicine, exercise and proper diet. “He’s a very happy person. A lot of charisma. Those things help you get through something like this.”

The “this” was cardiac arrest.

‘Being here, but not being here’

Before retiring, Cress, 67, served as maintenance director for the town of Granite Quarry, an alderman and 14-year volunteer with the fire department. Granite Quarry is in Rowan County, 45 miles northeast of Charlotte. Everyone calls him Kim. That’s a lot of people because he draws strength from knowing and liking most everyone.

There were no heart problems in his immediate family. His health was such that he took no medicine. His yearly fire department physical uncovered little more than “You need to lose 10 to 15 pounds.” That’s not exactly a revelation at his age. “You don’t see too many skinny old dogs,” he said.

Then came that Sunday evening. He was on the sofa, Teresa on a love seat three feet away. When her second question went unanswered, she discovered why. Kim was in cardiac arrest. His eyes were fixed. His tongue was hanging out. “I was dead,” he said. When people asked him what it was like, if he saw angels for example, he tells them there were no angels. But he felt like he was transitioning from here to there. “It was a sense of being here, but not being here.”

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Teresa’s call to 911 brought more than a dozen firefighters and medics to Cress’ side within a few minutes. They performed CPR then rushed him to Novant Health Rowan Medical Center in Salisbury. A stent was inserted into his blocked artery, restoring blood flow. Two days later, doctors gathered Teresa and their adult daughter, Lauren, and told them the prognosis wasn’t good, and that he might have suffered brain damage.

Cardiac arrest usually kills you. According to the American Heart Association, there are more than 356,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests annually in the United States – nearly 90% of them fatal.

How fast emergency personnel get to you can be the difference between life and death. When Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on “Monday Night Football” Jan. 2, the team’s medical staff and paramedics rushed onto the field and spent 10 minutes working to resuscitate him before he was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Hamlin, 24, whose story transfixed the nation, is recovering.

Likewise, Cress survived due to the swift emergency response, his medical care and the upbeat spirit that Wilmot talks about. His faith was part of the story, too. “You gotta believe in the man upstairs,” Cress said.

Cress’ first words when he woke up in the hospital? “I’m hungry.”

Twenty-five days later, fire trucks with lights strobing and siren wailing led him on a procession home from the hospital. People lined the streets to wave. WBTV News even did a story on his homecoming. “Wasn’t that awesome?” he said.

Wilmot says a preexisting, undetected heart condition likely contributed to the cardiac arrest. Six months later, on Sept. 29, 2020, Cress’ aortic valve was replaced during open heart surgery at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte. A diseased or damaged aortic valve can interfere with blood flow and force the heart to work harder to send blood to the rest of the body. Lifestyle and diet are often contributing factors in serious heart problems. Cress explained the surgery this way: “You have a new engine in an old truck.”

‘I feel blessed’

The dramatic journey has made Cress a believer in taking care of himself.

He made 38 trips to cardiac rehab. He has gone from no medication to seven prescriptions a day plus a baby aspirin. Wilmot sees him every six months now to assess him for any new cardiac symptoms and review his risk factors, including cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar control, weight, stress level and sleep quality.

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Kim and Teresa Cress with Roxy, who helps make sure Kim 's exercise routine includes plenty of walks.

Cress periodically undergoes an echocardiogram and vascular ultrasound. If he was a smoker, which he isn’t, Wilmot would have a thing or two to say about that. Cress isn’t exactly a diet fanatic– he’ll slip in a Little Debbie oatmeal cookie every now and then – but he’s more careful about what he eats. Chicken is in. Red meat for the most part is out. He admits it isn’t easy. He’ll order a salad at Sunday lunch after church and cast an envious eye at the fellow beside him wolfing down a steak.

He and Teresa downsized, moving from their house in Granite Quarry to a townhome on a golf course in Salisbury. Life is easier. There are no stairs to walk, no gutters to clean. Exercise includes walking their rescue dog, Roxy. He’s picking up golf again.

And he’s eternally grateful for Teresa. They’ve been a great team for 42 years. And it was her quick action that night that helped save his life. Daughter Lauren, son-in-law Alex and granddaughter Kannon continue to make a constant difference in his life.

He said that his church, St. Paul’s Lutheran in Salisbury, and his family provide all the stress relief he needs. Wilmot said Teresa is an awesome partner, always asking excellent questions about his care and helping her husband avoid the depression common among heart patients.

“He’s done a great job of saying ‘I’m not going there,’” Wilmot said. “There is no “Woe is me.’”

In his life after cardiac arrest, “Woe is me” has given way to “I feel blessed.” That’s because William “Kim” Cress has been given the opportunity to tell his story, about a fellow from Granite Quarry, North Carolina, whose heart stopped and then started again.

“I am so grateful to God, for prayers, and for Novant Health,” he said, “for giving me a second chance to complete my journey.”