A life hanging by an ‘if’

Paramedics impressed by calm response


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org 

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — One of the biggest words in the world is “if.” And if you don’t believe it, ask Leon Roberts.

Thursday, July 16, was filled with a lot of huge “ifs” for Roberts:

If he had driven away from his meeting.

If he had been alone.

If the right people with the right skills hadn’t been there.

If the right equipment hadn’t been at hand.

If there had been panic and indecision.

If things hadn’t played out the way they did, that Thursday would have been a very bad day for Roberts — probably his last.

The day began like any other day for Roberts, consultant for real estate and construction for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. One item on his schedule that day was a meeting with a subcontractor at St. James Academy in Lenexa, to talk about some work that needed to be done. It didn’t take long.

“I had actually left the building, but I turned around and came back because I needed some more information from the subcontractor,” said Roberts.

Roberts went to the main office and chatted briefly with Colin Lynch, a member of St. Peter Parish in Kansas City, Mo., and an acoustical ceiling contractor with E. J. Cody Co. of Kansas City, Mo.

“I shook his hand and said, ‘Let me give you my business card,’” said Lynch. “I turned to take it out of my notebook, pulled it out and handed it to him.”

Without warning, Roberts suddenly collapsed. Immediately, a prior conversation came to Lynch’s mind. Another contractor had casually mentioned to Lynch that Roberts had a history of heart illness. Normally, Lynch didn’t carry his cell phone into meetings, but he happened to have it in his pocket that day and he immediately called 911.

At that same moment, Sandy Warford, director of communications for St. James Academy, was walking through the front entrance with her eight-year-old daughter Adelle. She was there to do some work while her son Grant attended an agility clinic at the school.

“I saw two men shaking hands, and thought, ‘I wonder who they are?’ and just as I began to open the door, I noticed one of the men fell to the ground while the other man still had his hand extended,” said Warford.

Warford ran into the main office and threw down everything she was carrying. She yelled at Lynch to call 911, which he was already doing. Warford noticed the man on the floor was unresponsive.

Several things registered at a glance: The man had hit his head on the edge of a window while falling. He was wearing a wedding ring and a button-down shirt with the name of a local architecture firm.

Warford’s husband is an architect.

“Oh, no,” she thought to herself. “Architect down.”

When Warford ripped Roberts’ shirt open, she noticed he had a surgical scar on his chest. She had taken CPR training years ago while in college and also remembered a few tips from a recent morning TV show.

So as Lynch relayed questions and instructions to her from the 911 operator, Warford started chest compressions.

Meanwhile, when her daughter started to cry, Warford yelled some instructions of her own.

“Pray, Adelle! Say your Hail Marys!”

Since it was summer, the school was practically empty. There was, however, a meeting underway on the other side of the school in a second-floor room. Jody Maddox, a St. James theology teacher, was at the meeting. Her son, grade-school-aged Jack Maddox, was downstairs near the front doors. He saw everything and ran upstairs to tell his mother.

“[Jack] whispered to his mother that someone was having a heart attack,” said Colleen Kolich, head of the St. James English department and assistant girls basketball coach.

While some stayed with the students attending the meeting, Kolich and Deb- bie Nearmyer, assistant principal and director of Catholic faith formation, ran down the stairs toward the main office.

On the way, Kolich grabbed an AED — an automated external defibrillator.

Kolich had never used one before, but learned about them when Johnson County Med-Act held a training session on CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and AEDs at the school last year.

Lynch remained on the phone with the 911 operator, while Warford continued chest compressions. Kolich opened the AED, turned it on, and followed instructions to administer a shock.

By this time, Roberts’ breathing was agonal — which really isn’t breathing at all.

As the trio worked, a Johnson County Med-Act ambulance and a Lenexa Fire Department engine from Station 3 arrived. When the paramedics and firemen carried Roberts away, nearly everyone went to the chapel to pray.

Nearmyer, however, jumped into the ambulance.

Patti Roberts, Leon Roberts’ wife, was driving north on U.S. 69 in Overland Park when she got the call about her husband. As a co-worker struggled to tell her what happened, Patti Roberts pulled off the road.

“She said Leon collapsed and wasn’t breathing, and they were taking him to the hospital, but she didn’t know where,” said Patti.

It just so happened that the ambulance took Leon to Overland Park Regional Medical Center, and Patti was almost at the exit that led right to it.

“I went to the emergency room and asked for him, and they said he wasn’t there,” said Patti. “And then the battery on my cell phone started to die, and I couldn’t pull up the numbers for our kids.”

The ambulance arrived, and there was Nearmyer. She comforted Patti and helped her retrieve her children’s phone numbers.

“Debbie [Nearmyer] was such a help to me at the hospital until my kids came,” said Patti. “Without Debbie, it would have been really bad, because I couldn’t talk to my kids. I couldn’t get their numbers out of my cell phone.”

As for Leon, he doesn’t remember a thing about his collapse. He didn’t know he’d been defibrillated three times. Consciousness gradually began to return to him the following day.

He later learned he actually experienced an atrial fibrillation — when the heart muscles stop making coordinated contractions and instead begin to quiver. Doctors installed a pacemaker in his chest. Apparently, he had been in a precarious state for some time and didn’t know it.

It wasn’t until he heard the actual 911 recording during a CPR and AED class he recently took that Roberts fully understood how profound a thing it was that Lynch, Warford and Kolich accomplished.

“I think they did a marvelous job, since I’m standing upright,” said Roberts. “The fact they did something is greatly appreciated. The fact that they had faith in their skills and the courage to do this for another person is quite amazing.”

“I was absolutely dumbfounded by the sense of calm that occurred between all the parties,” he continued. “There was truly a sense of calm and peacefulness in that call.”

Jeff Johnson, a division chief with Johnson County Med-Act and a member of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park, said the trio of Lynch, Warford, and Kolich handled the situation as well as anyone possibly could.

“I trained the St. James staff last year, and the one thing I really impressed on them was to stay calm,” said Johnson. “In talking with the Med-Act medical director, Doctor Lester Richardson and the crew, that was probably the one thing that impressed them the most when they arrived on scene.”

Roberts has had an opportunity to thank some of his helpers, but he’ll have another opportunity when the school holds an assembly soon to honor all those involved.

“The experience brings into sharper focus the value of the gifts God gives you — of family, friends and talent,” Roberts said.

Patti sees God’s hand in every part of what happened.

“God just took care of [Leon] from the minute he left his truck and the lady came in the door — everything,” she said. “God has given me my husband back, more than once.”

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