How Three Doctors Saved a Singer Who Suffered a Heart Attack on Stage
When Henry Ray Fischbach suddenly collapsed during a performance, three doctors from NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center quickly stepped in to save his life.
“We were hot that night,” says Henry Ray Fischbach as he describes his jazz trio’s first time back onstage since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The band had almost finished their set on July 23, 2021, at The Inwood Farm restaurant in northern Manhattan when Henry, the lead singer, decided he wasn’t quite done.
“Let’s do one more,” Henry recalls telling his bandmates. As the room filled with the familiar notes to the mambo classic “Sway,” Henry crooned his way through the tune and even hit his usual high note at the end. Then he felt lightheaded.
At that moment, Henry’s wife, Barbara Fischbach, had turned away from the stage to talk to friends at her table when she suddenly heard a loud thud.
“I thought the bass had fallen because the bass player was having trouble sticking it on the floor properly,” she says. “Then I turned around and I saw Henry on the floor. So I screamed, and said, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?!’”
Luckily, there was not just one, there were three. Dr. Marc Dyrszka, a spine surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, was sitting at a table outside the restaurant with two orthopedic surgical residents, Dr. Andrew Luzzi and Dr. Matthew Simhon, when they heard the frantic shouting. Together the trio rushed inside to help Henry, who had suffered a heart attack. The doctors successfully administered CPR for about 10 minutes until the EMTs arrived and shocked his heart back into a regular rhythm before bringing him to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
“When Henry came to the emergency room, he was awake and alert despite the cardiac arrest. This is because not only were there people around him to help, but there were physicians who knew CPR,” says Dr. Christopher Irobunda, the cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center who inserted a stent in Henry’s heart immediately following the incident. “Henry’s lucky, because most people would not have survived what happened to him in that restaurant.”
“I owe everything to those guys,” says Henry, who returned to the stage five weeks later. “They were there for me when I needed it most, and everything else that has followed — every conversation, every word, the rain, the sun — if they hadn’t been there at that moment, none of that would have been possible.”
A Memorable Performance
Dr. Dyrszka, Dr. Luzzi, and Dr. Simhon had just completed a complex surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood when they decided to unwind at a favorite local spot just a few blocks away, The Inwood Farm. As they were talking about the surgery, suddenly the music stopped and “there were people banging on the window, calling for us to come inside,” says Dr. Luzzi, who was still dressed in hospital scrubs.
Once they made their way through the crowd to the stage, “we saw Henry on the floor,” says Dr. Luzzi. “He was blue, he wasn’t breathing, and he had no pulse.”
Henry’s wife, Barbara, told the doctors he wore dentures, so they removed those and checked for any breathing obstructions, which they didn’t find. “In my head, it was fairly simple. Guy falls down, airway’s fine, and there’s no pulse. There’s just one thing to do: You give him a pulse back,” Dr. Dyrszka explains.
The doctors swiftly began taking turns doing chest compressions and checking his pulse until Henry started spontaneously breathing again. During this time someone had called 911, and when the ambulance pulled up, Dr. Luzzi took a pair of scissors from the first-aid kit at the restaurant and cut off Henry’s shirt to prepare for the defibrillator.
After two attempts, the EMTs were able to restore Henry’s heart rate to a normal rhythm, and “at that point you could see he was breathing by himself,” says Dr. Dyrszka.
As the EMTs brought Henry out of the restaurant on a gurney, the anxious crowd waiting outside erupted into cheers when they realized Henry was alive, awake, and unaware of the drama that just unfolded.
“Henry was giving the crowd this big smile, saying, ‘What happened? Where’s my mic?’” says Dr. Dyrszka.
“We were lucky,” adds Dr. Dyrszka. “If we had left earlier, or if the EMTs didn’t have a defibrillator, it could have turned out differently.”
“It was such a fantastic result,” says Dr. Simhon. “And it feels really, really good to know that we played a role in that.”
“I owe everything to those guys. They were there for me when I needed it most.”
— Henry Ray Fischbach
“You Just Died Twice”
For the past few years Henry had experienced intermittent chest pains, but a previous echocardiogram — where Henry ran on a treadmill so his doctors could monitor his heart function — showed no signs of problems. He believed he had a digestive condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and had found that if he fasted the day before a performance, he didn’t experience any painful acid reflux.
To ease any discomfort while singing, “I’d been fasting most of the time when I worked,” explains Henry. “So I hadn’t really eaten anything or had anything to drink. When I was taken into the ambulance, I thought all I needed was water.”
As Henry began to protest about being taken to the hospital, “the EMT said, ‘You just died twice and you experienced a heart attack.’”
Henry was rushed to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where Dr. Irobunda performed an emergency surgery.
“Henry was brought quickly to the cardiac catheterization laboratory, where we successfully opened an artery that was completely blocked and put in a stent,” says Dr. Irobunda, who is also the Jim Ovia Associate Professor of Cardiology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “We also found out that his heart muscle function was quite weak, so he was transferred to the cardiac care unit for observation.”
Henry was in the ICU for only 12 hours and felt “really good,” he says. Within 24 hours, his blood pressure stabilized, and before too long he was joking with the nurses, singing to them and comparing favorite restaurants in the neighborhood where he’s been a lifelong resident.
Henry was able to go home after four days, an unusually fast turnaround for someone who suffered from cardiac arrest. “Most patients, by the time they get to our emergency room, they don’t have good mental status or are really nonresponsive,” says Dr. Irobunda. “The earlier a person gets resuscitated, they have a higher chance of recovering versus if they go longer without return of blood flow.”
Which is why Henry says he is grateful for the doctors who came to his aid on that July night. “This could have happened anywhere,” says Henry. “It could have happened on the street. It could have happened in our house. I could only have survived this [heart attack] where it did happen. And not just survive it, but to thrive? That’s the true miracle.”
An Unforgettable Encore
Five weeks after suffering cardiac arrest, Henry — who continues to see the cardiology team at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center to monitor his heart strength and other small blockages that were found in his arteries — was back at the mic at The Inwood Farm. And he got to do something he had wanted to do since his health scare.
Outside the restaurant before the show, Henry was finally able to meet the doctors who saved his life, giving them warm hugs, handshakes, and his deep appreciation.
“To let them know even an ounce of my gratitude, it’s nothing, but it’s everything,” Henry says, getting choked up. “I just wanted a few moments to thank these three amazing physicians for the care that I got. I’m grateful not just to them for saving my life, but to everyone from the EMTs to the staff at NewYork-Presbyterian for allowing me to have this moment. I couldn’t do anything but say thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Later that night when the show began, Henry explained to the audience the events from earlier in the summer and dedicated two songs to the doctors who came to his rescue. The first was “It Had to Be You.” For the second song, Henry asked the entire crowd to raise a glass as he started to sing the familiar refrain from a Fiddler on the Roof tune that now holds a new meaning to him: “To life, to life, l’chaim! l’chaim, l’chaim, to life!”
The audience joined in the lively chorus, and when Henry — who recently released his third album, appropriately titled Here to Stay — got to the end of the song, he took a deep breath before belting out a long final note to the raucous applause of the audience.
“To life!” Henry shouted. “I love it!”
Heart Health Tips
Singer Henry Ray Fischbach had cardiac arrest due to acute coronary syndrome (ACS), more commonly known as a heart attack. About 50% of the deaths associated with ACS are due to patients in cardiac arrest who are not revived in a timely manner with basic life support such as CPR or the use of defibrillators. “The fact he was successfully resuscitated in the midst of having a big heart attack and with no mental deficit, that’s remarkable,” says Dr. Christopher Irobunda, a cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Henry’s doctor.
“New chest pain, shortness of breath, or fatigue brought on by minimal activities are the most common symptoms of coronary heart disease and/or weakened heart muscle,” says Dr. Irobunda. “These are more common in men than in women, and they occur more frequently in older populations and in those with risk factors like diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smokers.”
With more than 700,000 cases per year, coronary heart disease has been the most common cause of death in the United States for the past 50 years. For better heart health, Dr. Irobunda recommends the following tips:
- Monitor and manage high blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol
- Regular exercise, such as aerobics, walking, swimming, or jogging, for 30 to 50 minutes, 4 to 5 days a week
- Maintain a healthy diet that is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and low in fat and dairy products
- Quit smoking
- Reduce stress
- Always call and discuss any new symptoms with your doctor
Click here for more on the importance of learning CPR and how this hands-only technique can improve someone’s chances for survival if they suffer cardiac arrest.
For more information on cardiovascular care at NewYork-Presbyterian, visit: https://www.nyp.org/heart.
Learn more about the essential health exams men and women need at every age.