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Pa. doctor saves man from heart attack on ski slope

A doctor specializing in internal medicine performed chest compressions on a man who was carried down the mountain in a toboggan after suffering a severe heart attack at the top of the slope

By Daniel Walmer
The Sentinel

CARLISLE, Pa. — Juliusz Nitecki, a doctor specializing in internal medicine at Carlisle Regional Medical Center, went to Whitetail Resort in Mercersburg with his son on Feb. 6 for a relaxing day on the ski slopes.

The same Friday, Bel Air, Maryland resident Jeff Correll was “pretty pumped” for his first opportunity of the winter to snowboard with friends — especially given the beautifully sunny weather.

Nitecki and Correll never expected to meet, let alone become entwined in a victory of life over death atop a snow-covered mountain.

Correll suffered a severe heart attack at the top of the slope, about 935 feet above the resort’s base elevation. He said he owes his life in part to Nitecki, who performed chest compressions on him as he was carried down the mountain on a toboggan.

For Nitecki, it was an experience he and his family will never forget.

“I came back a hero,” he said. “(It was) probably the best save of my life.”

On the slopes

A salesman at a home electronics company, Correll enjoys playing baseball and watching movies — but most of all, he loves “absolutely everything” about snowboarding.

“Snowboarding, when you’re coming down the mountain, is one of the most freeing things I’ve ever experienced, because you’re not thinking about anything other than what’s in front of you at this very moment,” he said.

One thing he certainly wasn’t thinking about was the possibility of having a heart attack.

He remembers completing two runs down the hill and feeling fine but doesn’t remember the remaining three to four runs he completed that day, or anything else until he was in Meritus Medical Center in Hagerstown, Maryland, with pain in his chest from broken ribs and family and friends surrounding him.

“I just remember waking up at the hospital and not remembering what the hell was going on,” he said.

Nitecki, however, remembered the next few hours vividly. At the ski lift landing, Correll dropped his snowboard to the ground, apparently not feeling well, and began experiencing seizure-like symptoms. Emergency workers on-scene immediately obtained a defibrillator and began working on him, a scene Nitecki and his son witnessed.

He normally would not stop to help in the case of a fractured bone because the resort’s medical staff can typically handle those situations, he said, but this was a different case — and if there was any doubt in his mind about whether to provide assistance, his son quickly put that to rest.

“My kid who is 12 said, ‘you’re a doctor — you have to help,’” he said.

The defibrillator fired four times but was unable to generate a pulse. Nitecki realized that Correll needed to be taken to better medical care at ground level but also knew he wouldn’t survive the trip down the mountain in a metal toboggan without a heartbeat. So he jumped on the toboggan with Correll and continued compressions all the way down the slope — a difficult task given the speed and bumpiness of the journey.

He reported the situation to the emergency helicopter that flew Correll to the hospital, and did not hear anything more that day.

Lifestyle change

Correll was able to piece together the story in the days to come, as well as the medical details of his condition: He had a small blockage in an artery that happened to break loose and get blocked in a place that cut off blood flow to the heart.

“My first reaction was shock, I suppose. I’m 30 years old — I shouldn’t have a heart attack,” he said.

The next thing he realized, he said, was how close he had come to death. If he had been on the ski lift or snowboarding down the mountain when it happened, he probably would not have survived, and even as it was, the positive outcome was dependent upon there being medical professionals in the right place at the right time.

“The more I thought about it and really took the time to reflect on everything, it really is a … miracle that I’m alive,” he said.

Correll said he never had significant health problems or warning signs other than high cholesterol and a family history of heart disease. After his brush with death, however, he knew he needed to change his lifestyle. It wasn’t hard to quit his pack-a-day smoking habit, and he’s started to purchase fruit and granola at the grocery store instead of chips, he said.

“I’m kind of looking down the barrel, and I’ve got to do something. It’s black and white now,” he said. “It’s just something that I have to think about every single day — every choice that I make.”

“A very nice feeling”

Nitecki’s son and a friend’s son who were with him on the trip were excited to see Nitecki’s life-saving performance, but he was pessimistic about Correll’s chances for survival that Friday.

“Once we got down the mountain, he looked very dead to me,” he said. “I couldn’t tell the kids that he didn’t make it, because they were so excited about it.”

On Monday, however, his secretary told him that she received a call from the father of a man who had a heart attack the previous weekend and wanted to thank Nitecki for his role in saving his son’s life.

“When I first found out that he survived, it was pretty emotional,” he said. “I was about to cry, to tell you the truth.”

After years of experiencing the daily grind — he’s worked at Carlisle Regional Medical Center since 2002 — the dramatic rescue helped confirm the decision that he had made in seventh grade to become a doctor.

“We are there to save people’s lives … but, in this day and age, there are policies, procedures, paperwork, lawsuits and everything else — the medicine kind of loses its luster,” he said. “(Helping Correll) gave me a very nice feeling.”

Chest compressions

Nitecki said his tale of rescue on the ski slopes can also serve to reinforce an important lesson: that chest compressions are critical to helping patients survive cardiac arrest with minimal permanent damage. For people concerned about performing the mouth-to-mouth portion of CPR, the American Heart Association says chest compressions only can be just as effective as traditional CPR.

Some people may be afraid to perform CPR, especially if they are afraid of being sued, but Nitecki said they need to overcome those fears.

“You have to forget about the legal aspects of it — if you see something like that, just go and help,” he said. “One life saved … is worth it, I think.”


©2015 The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pa.)