Tuan Pham said he was feeling great as he approached the 12-mile mark of the 39th Long Beach Half Marathon last weekend and had no idea that the three blocked arteries leading to his heart would soon leave him face down on Ocean Boulevard in cardiac arrest.

The 47-year-old Pham was running the race with his 16-year-old son, Josh, who had already finished the race and was waiting for Pham when collapsed outside the Long Beach Museum of Art Sunday. He woke up at Long Beach Memorial Hospital not knowing how he got there.

The chances of a person surviving after going into cardiac arrest outside of a hospital is typically less than 10%, but Pham was fortunate that a cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Ryan Chiu of Long Beach Memorial, was leaving brunch at the Museum restaurant when he saw Pham hit the ground.

“I can’t believe the one guy, the first guy, to see me fall, to show up and give me help, was a cardiac surgeon,” Pham said. “What are the odds?”

Chiu said he knew immediately that Pham was in cardiac arrest, but because of his age, he also thought that if they could get him to the hospital they could save him.

“I immediately started doing chest compressions,” said Chiu, who said Pham was unresponsive and had no pulse.

As Chiu and another bystander took turns giving compressions, he called Long Beach Memorial to help assemble the team that might be needed to stabilize Pham and perform life-saving surgery. After the ambulance took Pham away, Chiu got in his car and sped to the hospital to meet the team.

Cardiac arrest is not common among marathoners, but the chances of a runner ending up in cardiac arrest are not zero. A 2012 study cited in a 2019 New York Times article showed that 59 people running marathons or half marathons in the United States experienced cardiac arrest between 2000 and 2010. All but eight were middle-aged men, most of whom were running the full marathon.

Another study had similar findings and noted that most men who collapsed from cardiac arrest did so in the final four miles of the course. On race day, the general chances of a runner going into cardiac arrest are about one in 57,000, and underlying issues typically factor in, according to various studies.

Sudden death is woven into marathon lore, though. Pheidippides, a central character in a Greek story, reportedly ran from the fields of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon before dropping dead.

Pham says he “puts his body through hell” and is constantly working out so he didn’t think that the heart disease that killed his father and mother in their 50s would get to him. And he credits his parents for helping save him.

Running a marathon with tens of thousands of runners and spectators is a big change from how Pham prefers to run— which is alone. He prefers the solitude, but if he was alone Sunday he likely would have died.

“I’m not even a spiritual guy, but I think my parents saved me,” Pham said. “Just somehow, they put him [Chiu] there to be there for me.”

Chiu said their chance encounter almost never happened. After brunch, he wanted to leave but the person he was with wanted to stay a few minutes more to enjoy the ocean views from the Museum restaurant, Claire’s.

“I shudder to think that if we had left a little bit earlier that I would’ve never seen him go down,” Chiu said.

After Chiu performed a successful bypass surgery Monday, Chiu met Pham’s family for the first time and was able to present Pham with a medal from the marathon that a hospital spokesperson said was donated by a community member who said Pham had completed the most important race—getting healthy again.

Pham started running as a way to bond with his son, who runs cross country and has run multiple other half marathons. He said that heart surgery is not going to prevent him from running next year’s race, or from finishing this year’s course.

“I’m that guy,” Pham said. “I’m going back and finishing it, the last two miles.”

While Pham is determined to get back to physical activity, he said he’s feeling grateful. That’s all he’s felt all week. But he hopes that his story can inspire others beyond the heartwarming story of a heart surgeon saving the life of a runner going into cardiac arrest.

“Just awareness that you gotta go see a doctor and get checked,” Pham said.

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.