VMLY&R CEO Jon Cook Had His Own 'Damar Hamlin Moment.' This Is His Death-Defying Story

A series of fortunate events saved his life after his heart stopped

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There’s a worn-out advertising cliche that probably makes you shudder. You know the one: Advertising is all about finding the right consumer at the right time in the right place.

When VMLY&R CEO Jon Cook collapsed in Kansas City last year, he benefited from a series of coincidences that led the right people at the right time to the right place to save his life.

See, Cook always wears his Apple Watch. While that device performs many roles, the one he really needed to function last year—tracking his heart activity—had broken three weeks earlier. During those same three weeks, his heart happened to develop an atrial flutter. Essentially, his heart couldn’t stop rapidly beating and wearing itself out to the tune of 200-300 beats per minute.

“This was a story of a massive amount of either angels or coincidences,” Cook told Adweek. “I basically died for nine minutes.”

Here’s where those karmic coincidences kick in. After getting a beer with a VMLY&R colleague, Cook went for a run. Two minutes into that jog, he crouched over on a political sign (for a candidate he intended to vote for) and then collapsed.

A woman who happened to be a nurse practitioner at a children’s hospital was walking her dog and stopped to help him. Another woman, Sarrisa Curry, who is certified in CPR but lives out of town, was on her way to get ice cream with her family following a high school sporting event when she saw the nurse practitioner performing CPR.

“She’s just not from anywhere near where I live, and so that was a once in a million thing that she was there that night at that spot,” Cook said.

And the kicker: Cardio internist Prakash Acharya—the ideal medical professional for this scenario—was driving by and stopped. Three people, all trained to save an unresponsive person’s life, were present in the exact place to bring Cook back from the brink of death.

Cook calls seeing himself in photos like this “an out of body experience,” knowing he was on the brink of death.Jon Cook

Cook spent between seven and nine minutes by the side of the road without a pulse. At best, one in 10 people survive this. He was that one. He equates it to Damar Hamlin’s experience as a safety for the Buffalo Bills. Hamlin’s heart stopped after he was hit in the chest by a Bengals player, not a flutter, but the rescue and recovery were very similar.

When he came to, the first thing Cook heard from Curry was, “I’m the one who’s been making out with you for the last three minutes.”

Communicating with the agency

As the CEO of a large holding company agency, Cook needed to quickly make a number of decisions from his hospital bed about how to communicate his collapse to colleagues. He gave his leadership team enough information to keep the agency informed so that employees learned through proper channels and not rumors, while also maintaining his privacy as much as he could.

“I learned a lot about finding that balance of keeping people informed enough to know what’s going on and to have confidence that you’re fine, but without going too far as to scare the entire company,” Cook said.

Over time, Cook opened up, seeing the value of being transparent and the impact his health event could have on not only the agency, but the community.

“The leadership lesson is I learned a lot about how to communicate and how to be vulnerable, and how it’s OK to talk about your own health a little bit,” Cook said.

In the hospital, one of the first people Cook heard from was WPP CEO Mark Read.

“He couldn’t have been more responsive and caring about it, and it meant a lot to me,” Cook said. And later, WPP board chairman Roberto Quarta became a bit of a mentor to Cook, after Quarta shared that he had had a similar experience. “[Quarta] gave me a lot of advice about how to think about it and how to regain physical and mental confidence.”

Agency staffers partake in CPR training.

In the aftermath, VMLY&R has rolled out CPR training sessions across its offices, starting with Kansas City. The agency is also making sure employees know not only where automated external defibrillators (AED) are located, but feel empowered to use them in an emergency.

“There’s very few people that can tell you exactly where those are in an office or what they do or how to use them,” Cook said, adding, “I couldn’t have told you where the AED units were. And I’m not embarrassed to say I’m not even sure I knew how to use them before this incident.”

Ice cream with a friend

This was a story of a massive amount of either angels or coincidences.

Jon Cook, CEO, VMLY&R

After the experience, Cook views life as full of opportunity to maximize every moment with the people you care about.

“There’s a realization of the last moment you have with anybody important in your life, and a lot of the most important people in my life are at VMLY&R,” Cook said. “And not to be morbid about it, but when you almost die, you think about what was the last conversation you had with this partner or that partner at your office.”

Cook received a clean bill of health with no restrictions on travel or physical activity, but he did have a defibrillator put in to shock him back to life if his heart ever stops for more than six seconds again. He owes this all to his rescuers for taking swift, brave action.

While in the hospital, Cook reunited with one of his first responders, Acharya, who continued his medical care as his cardiologist. After weeks of searching, The Kansas City Star’s feature helped him finally locate Curry, who eluded his attempts to find her via door knocking and the Nextdoor app.

Last month, Cook and Curry reconnected in person for the first time. According to another Kansas City Star piece, she had suffered her own health trauma—a brain bleed. After a long wait, they finally met at a fitting location: at the ice cream shop she was headed to when she stopped to save Cook’s life.

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