Angels must have been watching over Noel Fulkerson that Sunday night in August 2012.

The Kansas City Metro Men’s Chorus had just finished “Soon I Will be Done with the Troubles of the World” during a performance that Fulkerson was conducting at John Knox Village in Lee’s Summit, Mo. As the 70-year-old turned to acknowledge the audience applause, Fulkerson collapsed on stage.

Surely it was divine intervention—right before the performance started, Mike and Linda Hatfield had moved from the back to the second row. And the retirees, a highway patrolman and a registered nurse, recognized immediately that Fulkerson was experiencing sudden cardiac arrest. It occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating and blood no longer properly flows to the brain and other vital organs.

Because 95 percent of victims die without immediate emergency care, sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, a person’s chance of surviving sudden cardiac arrest decreases 10 percent with every minute that passes without a shock to restart the heart.

As John Knox officials scrambled to locate their automatic external defibrillator (AED), the Hatfields jumped onstage and performed CPR until paramedics arrived. More than 30 minutes passed. The clock was ticking for Fulkerson.

In good hands
Call it fate: Fulkerson was rushed to Saint Luke’s East Hospital, which was just minutes away and features a Level III trauma center and comprehensive cardiac care. 

The emergency team immediately started the induced hypothermia protocol—a standard procedure that Saint Luke’s uses to protect patients who’ve suffered sudden cardiac arrest from heart and brain damage. Using a cooling blanket, they slowly lowered Fulkerson’s body temperature to protect his brain function. The lower temperature slows the metabolic process, which reduces the amount of energy that the brain needs to function.

When Fulkerson awoke Tuesday afternoon in the intensive care unit (ICU), it was as if nothing had happened.

“I don’t remember a thing—it was like someone turned the lights off, and I just went to sleep,” recalled Fulkerson.

Two days later, Saint Luke’s cardiologists placed an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) in Fulkerson’s chest. Should Fulkerson’s heart ever stop again, the ICD will deliver a jolt of electricity to kick-start it back into a normal rhythm.

Six days later, Fulkerson was back home in Independence, Mo., to recover.

A new tune
Fulkerson underwent cardiac rehabilitation for six weeks to rebuild his stamina so he could resume normal activities.

Before suffering sudden cardiac arrest, Fulkerson didn’t pay much attention to his diet or exercise. Today, he limits his fast food intake and substitutes lots of lean meat, veggies, and fruit. And four days a week he hits the gym where he logs an hour of cardio exercises and another 15 minutes on weights.

In addition, the not-quite-retired music teacher of 50 years is still teaching part-time at an Independence high school, co-conducts the Raytown Community Choir, and teaches private voice lessons.

And then there’s the Kansas City Metro Men’s Chorus, which he still co-conducts.

Fulkerson and two others established the volunteer chorus 10 years ago to praise God through music and to raise funds for charity. To date, they’ve raised more than a quarter million dollars. And Fulkerson helped fund a mission trip to Haiti for one of the Saint Luke’s nurses who treated him.

While his experience hasn’t slowed him down, it has changed his tune.

“I don’t get upset about the little things anymore, and life is a heck of a lot more fun now,” said Fulkerson. “I’ve had a terrific career and have tons of friends. I so appreciate life and the gifts that God has given me.”