Life can change in a heartbeat, or none at all

imageA 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.

About 10 minutes later, the duty chief sent me this text:


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


image(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, or Barnes & Noble.)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

85 thoughts on “Life can change in a heartbeat, or none at all”

  1. I’ve always thought people who write humor are the best writers, only you don’t really notice until they get serious. Like Mark Twain. Well done, Ned, both the CPR and the story of it.

  2. Congratulations, Ned. And this is quite serendipitous – and for another reason. In my day job I’m doing a research project on training for firefighters in South Africa. One of the comments on an early draft of our report was that other countries rely heavily on volunteers and this is not the case here. I wish it were the case. The commitment is often so much greater, as you have shown. Also, that a firefighter is an important person who does so much more than put out real and proverbial fires: they save lives. Not often acknowledged here. I don’t know why. Again, good on you!

    1. Thanks so much, Fiona. One of the things I love most about being a volunteer FF is that we assist in so many different kinds of situations, from public education to disasters — and everything in between. And you’re right about there being something special in the volunteer spirit. You can’t buy it 😉

  3. Great job Ned ! You well deserve the award for the job you do . I have a pic on my phone that walks you through the CPR steps . I’m an experienced hand at working an accident scene but that’s another story .

    1. What a fantastic app! It should be standard on every phone and right on the front screen. Thanks for taking the initiative to be prepared to help someone, Pamela!

  4. What an awesome story Ned… so glad you could save his life! I am sure there are times when you have done all you could and the ending wasn’t quite as good. I know situations like this make everything worth it! I commend you and your brethren first responders! Thank you for being willing to make the hard decisions! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Courtney. And yes, most of the time it’s not a positive outcome. I’ve had my share of Saturday morning CPR situations that hung with me for the rest of the day. But you’re right, knowing there’s always the chance it will turn out well is what keeps you wanting to try. Every time 😉

  5. Ahh, what a sweet story.

    I’m chuckling here, but the first time I had to do cpr it was a woman having a heart attack. She came through and when I went to visit her she was absolutely furious that we hadn’t just let her be. Apparently there was no pain, she was having a beautiful experience, and felt rather annoyed that we had interrupted.

    She’s still kicking today and we are great friends, but she really changed my whole perspective about heart attacks. Sure they aren’t good and they tend to kill you, but that idea that we are always in terrible pain and struggling for breath like they show on TV, isn’t always the whole story.

    1. Lol! Very true! I’ve done CPR dozens of times, and each time was different. And so were the outcomes. In your case and mine, the fact that a friendship started because of it is about the best outcome you can hope for 😉

  6. Holy shit, dude; reading this had me on the edge of my seat! Nicely done – both in the doing and the writing about it afterwards.

  7. Oh my gosh this made me cry. I know you won’t think so, but you are a hero. I know the man who’s life you helped save will agree. Thanks for all that you and your comrades do.

    1. Thanks, Gibber — and I will make sure to pass that along to my fellow volunteers, any one of whom would have done the same. Maybe without as much finesse, but still…

    1. Thank you, Carrie, and my pleasure to provide the link. Even if only one person uses it, that one person could make the difference in someone else living or dying. Definitely worth it 😉

  8. The other day my best friend’s son assisted a man that was having a heart attack, saving his life. You never know how quickly life can change, CPR is a godsend, so is knowing the symptons.

    1. So very true. It’s better to know the basics and never need them than to need them and not know what to do in those critical first minutes. How awesome he was there!

  9. I have a few stories like this. I have always managed to be in the most interesting places when anything weird happens. Not everyone is good in an emergency. The stress level is very high. People panic. One cool, calm head can do a lot of good in a situation like that. Good job.

    1. Thanks, Art. And you’re right, one person’s calm can make all the difference. Maybe we’ll end up at the same place in an emergency and freak people out with our calmness.

      And thanks, Art. It’s good to know people like you are out there, too.

  10. You are truly a wonderful person, Ned. Your humor is brilliant and you literally save people’s lives “as needed.” I am proud to know you, my friend 🙂

  11. You’re a hero, Ned. I’m so full of admiration for your diligence that day, and for all things Firefighter. Yes, as Ross said, count me among those proud of you and your award. Keep loving life, Bob!

  12. That’s amazing that he came back. When my a Dad was hospitalized, I was told that if his heart stopped, it would be highly unlikely that he would come back. They said that TV gives us a false sense of the reality of bringing someone back; that it’s more rare than commonplace. Congratulations for making a great call and saving Bob’s life.

    1. Thanks, Susan. Unfortunately, it’s true that most situations like this don’t end as well. I’ve certainly had my share of unhappy endings. But applying CPR in those first two minutes increases someone’s changes of recovery by 50%. I’d say those odds are worth having as many people as possible know basic CPR 😉

      1. Yes, for sure. I was also thinking that in the case of my Dad, performing CPR on his 85 year old cancer riddled body would have broken all his ribs and there is no way, once he left his body that he would come back. No way in hell. And in fact, six months later when he died, I got the message from him: “Woo hoo!! I’m free!!!!!” It was awesome.

  13. What a beautiful story Ned! I was moved. You are and continue to be an amazing human being and funny as hell to boot! No pun intended here right? LOL~God Bless You~

  14. Way to step up, brother. Glad you were thinking of the time frame. As a former newspaper guy, I know how our editor types can sometimes feel deadline is life or death … as if.

  15. this made me cry – so glad you made the choice to respond and that by doing so, you saved not just a life, but a person who had a family who loved him and needed him around. you are a good person Ned…truly, a good person.

    1. Thanks, RM — His daughter called a few days ago and had us both teary, which made it all the more real. I didn’t mention it earlier, but Sept. 18 was also my Dad’s birthday; seems kind if fitting 😉

      1. if anyone read’s this and is not touched, they are heartless. You were called in more ways than one that day…what a gift you were given.

  16. You rock ! Lots of people know CPR but would not have the guts to do it on a stranger in that kind of situation with so many people around. They would just stand there and wait for someone else to step up.
    Annie ❤

      1. 🙂 ❤ I used to work at a nursing home as an aid. All of the nurses and aids were trained in CPR and firs aid. Two times someone was choking in the dining room and everyone just stood there.
        I had to go over and help them because even the nurses did not respond.

        Just because people are trained does not make them respond.
        It is like they cannot believe a real emergency is happening …they just detach from reality and stand there.

        So you did good. He was lucky you were there. Otherwise who knows…

        Much love,
        Annie ❤

  17. I’ve spent a lifetime worshiping fictional heroes, Ned.
    It’s nice to be able to say I know a real one.

    If you changed your life tomorrow, Ned, you could rest easy knowing how much you’ve given back to the world. Well done, buddy.

    1. If I changed my life tomorrow, I’d want to make sure you were still among the people I call my friend, Robert.

      Thank you.

      Now slap my ass so we can keep this manly…

  18. i’m torn. On one hand, you selflessly saved somebody’s life. For that, a hearty “well done”. On the other hand, does saving a life offset the the fact you appeared in public in a red thong?

No one is watching, I swear...

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