‘You never know’: Breakfast Kiwanis program on CPR basics impacts lives of two best friends

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The program for a Breakfast Kiwanis meeting a few years ago was a presentation on the basics of performing CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). 

I listened to the presentation by Fire Chief Joe Henning and participated in the simulation of CPR. As I recall, I didn’t quite get it right at first. I wasn’t exerting enough pressure on the chest of the mannequin we were using as a part of the simulation. The mannequin provided feedback by a clicking sound when the compression was sufficient. I eventually got the right amount of exertion it took to be effective. 

My take-away from the program was to push really hard on the chest to the beat of the Bee Gees’ song, “Stayin Alive.” Good to know. 

Never figured I would need it.

I was in Oregon to attend a wedding last fall and took a bike ride with one of my best friends, Scott Walden. We stopped after a long ride uphill through a series of switchbacks on a rural road. From the elevation we had climbed, I was looking down on the town we had just left and looking out over the beautiful Columbia River Gorge. I remarked on what a magnificent view it was and how nice it was that there was virtually no traffic on the “shared” road we were biking.

I heard Scott’s bicycle crash to the ground moments later. I looked around to see him face down on the pavement. I rushed over, still not comprehending what had just happened.

By some amazing grace, three good Samaritans — a couple and a motorcyclist —appeared on the scene offering to help as I was trying to rouse my unresponsive friend. Moments before, I had been delighted we weren’t sharing that road with any vehicles. Thank God someone was on the road now. 

I managed a frantic call to 911 and explained what had happened. When asked for our location, I didn’t have a clue where we were other than up a steep hill outside Hood River, Ore. I passed the phone to a woman bystander, hoping she could assist the dispatcher. 

I turned my attention back to Scott, renewing my efforts to rouse him to respond. However, he was unconscious and not breathing.

Then I heard the woman speaking to the 911 dispatcher ask, “Does anyone know CPR?”

Something clicked. In my panic and shock, I hadn’t been thinking heart attack.

Then I remembered: Do what they taught you at that Kiwanis meeting. Compress the chest. Push forcefully on his chest. Do it rhythmically. Do it to the beat of the Bee Gees’ song, “Stayin’ Alive.”

So I began. Press … press … press … do it in rhythm. 

Push … push … push hard … do it in rhythm.

Having nothing more than the Kiwanis “training,” I felt inept and uncertain. One of the good Samaritans began an attempt at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but the dispatcher told us to just maintain the chest compressions. 

I kept going and going. I expected Scott to come to, to awaken and breathe, but it wasn’t happening. 

The presence of those good Samaritans kept me going when sometimes it felt like my efforts were futile. They told me to keep the chest compressions going until the paramedics got there. I kept going, despite my fear it was taking too long.

When the paramedics arrived approximately 10 minutes after the 911 call, Scott was still unresponsive. I had a sinking feeling I had failed. He wasn’t conscious. He wasn’t breathing. A police officer took me aside as the paramedics continued their work. 

Finally, after several minutes, as paramedics loaded Scott on a stretcher and placed him in the ambulance, I heard someone say, “He’s breathing.”

A paramedic advised me he would be airlifted to a hospital in Portland. The good Samaritans assured me I had done everything I could, and I had given Scott a chance. However, as I thanked them for staying with me, the looks on their faces weren’t entirely reassuring. 

I still felt I had failed. I had not gotten him breathing on his own while I was performing CPR.

I saw Scott later that evening in the hospital. Despite my doubts and fears at the scene, he was very much alive! It felt miraculous. He was talking to me and, but for some bumps and scrapes, looking like the friend I had begun the bike ride with, not the figure they loaded into the ambulance. 

Looking back, what I didn’t understand at the time was that the CPR I was performing was unlikely to jumpstart his heart or his breathing. I’m sure that was probably explained at that Kiwanis program, but I certainly hadn’t recalled it when I was leaning over my friend. 

I’ve learned those rhythmic chest compressions, the essence of CPR, were artificially pumping and circulating his oxygenated blood to the brain and other organs that needed it to continue to function.

I now realize it was unlikely that, by CPR alone, I was going to restore my dear friend to life. Apparently, however, I sustained his life with that circulating blood.

I learned if circulation could be sustained, there was a chance life could be restored, heart beating and lungs breathing from the miracle and gift of the training, medicine, equipment and compassion of those paramedics. Sustaining circulation until the paramedics could take over was critical.

I have been told I saved Scott’s life. It certainly didn’t feel like it when the paramedics loaded him into the ambulance. Saving a life sounds heroic. I didn’t feel heroic then and don’t feel heroic now. What I do feel is immense gratitude for the tool given to me by that Breakfast Kiwanis program. 

I occasionally have flashbacks. From time to time, I still struggle trying to process the reality and trauma that occurred on that beautiful, sunny afternoon. I struggle even more with the knowledge that CPR is not successful in many instances. 

Tragically, I learned a few weeks later of such a circumstance involving a long-time client and friend. I’m left wondering: Why me? Why Scott? 

I’ve known in the abstract that CPR provides the possibility of sustaining a life, giving a person a chance to live. I had never, on my own, however, acted on that knowledge to learn how to perform CPR. From my traumatic, life-altering experience, I’m now an unabashed advocate for everyone learning the basics of CPR.

Thankfully, Scott has had a full recovery. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the Kiwanis program that taught me how to sustain a life until help arrives. I’m humbled and haunted by thoughts of what might have happened if I had not learned, in that 20-minute program, the basics of CPR and “Stayin’ Alive.”

I implore anyone reading this to learn how to perform CPR.

You never know.

Scott Walden and Tom Ortbal are long-time neighbors and have been the best of friends during the past 45 years, including their entire 36-year legal careers, which consisted of several overlapping years serving as judges on the Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit Court, primarily in Adams County. They are long-time members of the Breakfast Kiwanis club and hold deeply shared interests in law, politics, history, golf and biking. 

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