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‘If I’m ever questioning my purpose in life, I think about this day’

A serendipitous stop at a drive-in leads to saving a young man experiencing V-fib – and a new friendship

Nelson and patient110920.jpg

If I hadn’t wanted a milkshake that day, I never would have been in the right place at the right time to help a critically ill patient who is now a lifelong friend (left).

Photo/Tom Nelson

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Having been a paramedic for 28 years now, I’ve seen a lot. Many horrific things. A lot of things humans really shouldn’t have to see. Things that will scar you for life.

I’ve also been able to experience some wonderful things. Helping a new mom and her baby. Putting a smile on the face of a patient who is having a horrible day is one of the reasons I love this career.

One call I’ll never forget – one that I will cherish until the day I die – is when I decided to cheat on my diet.

It was about 6 years ago. My partner and I had just cleared the hospital, and I insisted we stop by the local drive-in for a milkshake. We patiently stood in line so I could get my chocolate peanut butter shake. Sometimes you gotta treat yourself, you know?

We slowly ambled back across the street to our awaiting ambulance and buckled up. Right as we were about the leave, the woman from the drive-in came up to us and said, “My manager wants you to come back inside for some reason.”

I got out and followed her back inside, not really knowing what to expect, but not expecting any kind of emergency. Fortunately, my trusty partner, Brian, had the presence of mind to grab all our gear.

Opening the door to the restaurant, I immediately saw a man flat on his back on the floor in the corner of the restaurant. He was no more than 30 years old and looked very fit.

I knelt down by him. Was he breathing? Kinda, I think so … agonal, I suppose. Was there a pulse? Not sure actually. My mind was telling me that a young man this fit surely just had a seizure or something, right? I attached the four leads on him and holy cheese – V-fib!

“%$#!” Start CPR!

The patches went on and I fired off the ol‘ Zoll defibrillator and zap! If the monitors could make a sound while shocking (and they should), I’m thinking it would sound like a bug zapper or a TASER.

Within two minutes, the man was talking, didn’t remember a thing about what happened, but was answering all questions appropriately.

As per our county protocols, whenever we get ROSC in the field, we hustle on off to the big hospital that has the cath lab, and I hand off my patient to my wife who was a cath lab nurse at the time. There he is fitted with the latest and greatest ICD. As an aside, my wife and I had the opportunity just the day before to sit in on an in-service about a newly available abdominal subcutaneous internal cardiac defibrillator device. So this young man was fitted with it the next day and was the first in the county to get it.

This strong young man is doing fine, no lasting effects except for the new machinery in his chest. Turns out that he suffered from a congenital heart defect – one that had no previous warning signs, and that having not occurred the way it did, the outcome would most likely be grim.

I have to ponder whether it was divine intervention that caused me to go into that drive-in, at that exact time, for a shake. What would’ve been the outcome had we been in the station or across town?

I believe we’re all on this planet for reasons. This was one of mine. If I’m ever feeling down or questioning my purpose in life, I think about this day. And, I have gained a lifelong friend! I get to see him occasionally and still get texts on the anniversary of this day, thanking me for his life.

Tom Nelson is a firefighter-paramedic for the City of Anacortes, Washington. He has been a firefighter for 21 years and a paramedic for 28 years.