Chilling Medical Dramas: He Took a Nail Gun to the Heart

A careless accident on the job turned into a medical nightmare.

nail in heart
Nick Veasey for Reader’s Digest

It was supposed to be an easy roofing job, but Dennis Hennis was impatient. His son, Danny, was moving too slowly. “By the time you finish, I’ll be 53,” said Dennis. It was March 2012, and he had just celebrated his 52nd birthday.

Dennis grabbed the nail gun to demonstrate how to work faster. But the tool was jammed, so Dennis attempted to fix it. He forgot one important step: Unplug the device. “For some dumb reason, I turned that thing toward me, and all I heard was a thud in my chest,” says Dennis, of Vineland, New Jersey. “I knew it was in my heart. I said, ‘Danny, I’m going to light this cigarette. This will be my last one.’ ”

When the ambulance arrived, Dennis was holding the 3 ¼-inch nail in place with one hand and a cigarette in the other. His first instinct had been to pull out the nail, but he stopped himself. As a general contractor familiar with plumbing, he knew that the nail was the only thing preventing him from bleeding to death.

Unfortunately, the closest Level 1 trauma center was 34 miles away, and helicopters were grounded because of thick fog. He would have to go by ambulance. When Dennis’s heart stopped en route, the medics had to make a tough call: Dennis needed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), but the chest compressions would make the nail gun injury worse and might even kill him. Without the CPR, he would definitely die. The medics started CPR as the ambulance changed course and sped toward the nearest hospital. Then, in a stroke of good luck, the fog lifted enough for a helicopter to fly.

Cardiothoracic surgeon Michael Rosenbloom, MD, was ready. But after he opened Dennis’s chest, removed the nail, and sewed up the hole with a few stitches, Dennis unexpectedly went into cardiac arrest. “We tried shocking the heart with paddles, but it was clear after a couple of shocks that he wasn’t going to come back readily,” says Dr. Rosenbloom.

Because they were still in an operating room with a heart-lung machine, the doctors quickly used the device to circulate Dennis’s blood and stabilize his heart rhythm. After about 45 minutes, “everything was back where we wanted it,” says Dr. Rosenbloom, “and we could close him up and move him to recovery.”

As he healed, Dennis mulled over just how lucky he was. His hospital room hosted a parade of family members he hadn’t seen in years—from a cousin who was a beloved childhood friend to half-siblings with whom he’d lost touch. “If I were in a casket in a funeral home, I wouldn’t have known they loved me that much,” says Dennis. “I got shot in the heart and then flooded with love.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest