A dad-of-two whose heart stopped beating while running the Reading Half Marathon, causing him to collapse and remain unconscious for four minutes, will run the same race to raise vital funds to thank the volunteers who saved his life.
Jonathan Oakeley, 39, an insights manager for PepsiCo, collapsed approximately one mile from the finish line on March 17, 2019 after going into cardiac arrest.
As a fit and healthy 35-year-old man at the time, with previous running experience and no underlying health conditions, Jonathan said he never could have anticipated what would happen while racing towards the finish line.
He explained: “As I rounded the corner, over the top of this hill, I was like, something’s not feeling so great.
“It felt like the most intense dizziness you’ve ever felt. Literally, everything was spinning, suddenly going a little bit wonky, and I managed to get over to the barriers.
“I just remember looking this poor lady who was standing in front of me, wrapped up for the weather, square in the eyes, going, ‘I don’t feel so good’.
“And that’s pretty much the last thing I remember, everything just going black.”
Jonathan’s heart had stopped beating and he remained unconscious for four minutes while St John Ambulance volunteers rushed to resuscitate him, using a defibrillator.
The Lincoln-based resident said everything was “just black”, but he next remembers opening his eyes and seeing a woman clutching onto his hand very tightly, crying.
He continued: “The next thing I remember is being on the ground, looking up, and having my hand crushed by a bystander who had tears streaming down her face.
“She was like, ’I thought you were dead’.”
Jonathan said he was “shellshocked” and “quite out of it” when he first woke up, but he otherwise felt OK and wanted to continue running and finish the race.
After being checked over, he was taken by St John volunteers in an ambulance to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, where he remained for two weeks.
He underwent various tests during his time in hospital including blood tests, an angiogram – a type of X-ray used to examine the heart’s blood vessels – and a ballistocardiogram (BCG), which measures cardiac activity.
He was also fitted with an internal defibrillator, which monitors his heartbeat.
Jonathan explained that he did not realise the severity of the situation until a few days after the event, when he had a revelation in his hospital bed.
“I was just scrolling through all of the material that I’d been given by the doctors, and then you learn all of these quite sobering stats… every minute being absolutely vital,” he said.
“All of these things were just hitting like hammer blows into my head, just going, this could have been horrific. So that was pretty gnarly and very, very sobering.”
He added: “If it had happened 10 or 15 minutes earlier, either in the same place or further down the route, then it could have been a very different outcome.”
Jonathan explained that the St John volunteers were positioned extremely close by on the day, allowing them to respond and arrive by his side “within seconds”.
He said he was “incredibly lucky” as he was “in the right place at the right time”.
After leaving the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Jonathan was then referred to the Inherited Cardiac Conditions unit at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, but he said doctors were “baffled” and were unable to find a cause for the cardiac arrest.
Jonathan also had psychotherapy, which he said has been “really useful”, in order to help him process the events that took place that day.
He explained: “I’ve always had quite a strong ‘joie de vivre’ and the desire to try and maximise every opportunity or experience as much as possible and, if anything, this (incident) enhanced that.
“That also comes with a profound sense of gratitude for an existence on the whole, but also the ability to have continued existence, which wouldn’t have been possible if the team didn’t do what they did on the day.”
Jonathan was lucky enough to meet the volunteers who saved his life in November through the Ask Me campaign for St John Ambulance, which he described as “incredibly moving”.
He continued: “I was grateful for the opportunity to be able to meet the guys that were there to save my life, and to thank them in person.
“Thank is a very small word for the depths of gratitude that we have, and hopefully, in my ham-fisted way, I was able to convey our appreciation of what they did for us that day to them.”
To further demonstrate his appreciation, Jonathan is undertaking the challenge of completing four half marathons over eight months to raise vital funds for the charity.
He is also hoping to raise awareness of the importance of CPR training and knowing where defibrillators are located.
Jonathan first “fell in love” with running while training for his first Reading Half Marathon in 2017 – the same year he tied the knot with his wife, Hollie, 35, who is an insights director at PepsiCo.
The couple have since had two children, Teddy, 3, and Annie, four months – something only possible because of the lifesaving work of the volunteers that day.
Jonathan has already completed the Great North Run and the Royal Parks Half Marathon, and he is aiming to end his fundraising mission by running the Reading Half Marathon once again in April 2023.
He said it will be “emotional” revisiting the same spot where he collapsed in 2019, but he is hoping he will “smash” his fundraising target, and donations have already exceeded the original goal of £1,500.
“The very least I can do is to help raise as many funds as we can for St John and to raise awareness of the fact that it’s a voluntary organisation. They need donations to stay afloat to keep up the great work that they do,” he said.
You can visit Jonathan’s fundraising page here: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/st-jonti-ambulance.