A few months ago, I went from wearing nothing but red thong while climbing around the sand dunes, to being a first responder at a multi-car accident with a car fire — all in a span of about 15 minutes. It’s a long story that, if you aren’t squeamish (and by that, I mean about the image of me in a red thong), you can read it here. Long story short, the experience was a reminder of how unpredictable life can be, and how, in an instant, circumstances can change from ridiculous to surreal. And I’m not just talking about being at a Justin Bieber concert. After five years as a volunteer firefighter, I’ve had plenty of tapouts change family dinners to warmed-up leftovers, or the first long kiss of a romantic evening into a goodbye hug and a porch light waiting for me when I get home. They are reminders that life isn’t really day-by-day as much as we’d like to think — but is truly lived minute-by-minute.
On the morning of Sept. 18, I was reminded once again how quickly life can change. And how, in the span of a few minutes, it can hang in the balance somewhere betwen clocking back in or permanently checking out.
I had been in the newsroom about 30 minutes, preparing for our Friday deadline, when the tones from my fire department pager came alive at my hip. Being a volunteer, I don’t normally respond while I’m at work because 1) it would wreak havoc on the well-oiled machine that is our newsroom (In case my editor is reading this) and 2) there’s generally a full crew on at all times during the day.
But then I heard this:
…Pre-alert Siuslaw Valley Fire and Western Lane Ambulance, man down in the port parking lot. Suspected heart attack. Reported unresponsive and not breathing…
My first thought was massive heart attack. I knew it would be between 5 and 7 minutes before anyone would arrrive. After less than three minutes, lack of oxygen to the brain begins to kill it; even if the heart is resuscitated, damage to the brain is almost always irreversible — and more often than not, fatal. Given that our office was only a few blocks away, I ran to my car and sped to the port parking lot where a crowd had gathered around a man sprawled on the ground next to a boat trailor. I jumped from the car and announced I was a firefighter. As I felt for a pulse someone said the man literally dropped to the ground “like a puppet with the strings cut away.”
No pulse. No breathing. No response.
In modern CPR, chest compressions are everything. The blood carries oxygen in it already. But unless it’s being pumped to the brain, it’s not doing any good. As I began pumping his chest, someone said they thought his name was “Bob.” Though Bob wasn’t responding, I called him by name, told him who I was, and what we were doing to help him. I enlisted a port employee named Rick to monitor Bob’s pulse. After about six compressions Bob took a deep, wheezy breath almost as if he was about to sneeze.
“I have a pulse now!” Rick said.
After three more compressions, Bob took another wheezy breath. I held off on the compressions for a moment to see if he would come back on his own.
“I lost his pulse.”
Bob was getting air but his heart had stopped, so I went back to chest compressions and Bob went back to sporadic, wheezy breaths.
“Pulse is back!”
“Ok, Bob,” I said. “I’ll keep pumping. You keep breathing. And we’ll be golden.”
When the medics arrived a few minutes later, they cut away his shirt in preparation to jumpstart his heart as I continued compressions. More medics arrived and I backed out, letting them take over as I slowly walked back to my car.
I still had a deadline to meet; an ironic term that wasn’t lost on me as I took a last look in the mirror and wondered if Bob was going to make it.
I couldn’t help but smile, thinking of how I woke that morning with a certain plan for the day. Fate clearly had other plans. A week later, I answered the phone and was greeted by the voice of Bob DeGroot. He was back home in Portland and recovering nicely after a triple bypass. We spoke of life, family and how lucky we both felt that fate had brought us together when it mattered most.
Last night, I received this award from the ambulance district, and was humbled to have it handed to me by paramedics — amazing people who save lives every day. While I am appreciatve of the award, what’s even better is knowing Bob will be back again next season.
And this time he said he’s taking me fishing.
I’m keeping this award on my desk where I can see it. Not to show off my deed, but to serve as a reminder of how life isn’t lived day by day; it’s lived minute by minute.
And sometimes heartbeat by heartbeat…
If you don’t know CPR, here’s a link to learn it FREE online, including CPR for infants and adults. It will only take a few minutes. But you never know when those few minutes could mean a lifetime for someone else. Please click HERE
(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation and a member of the writing team at Long Awkward Pause. This has been an excerpt from his first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)