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Heart attack victim’s rescuers honored as EMS ‘heroes’

The awards were presented to the individuals “for their courage, time and dedication”

By Dean Olsen
The State Journal-Register

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Brian Churchill never had used an automated external defibrillator on a real patient, though the paramedic had used similar heart-shocking devices before, knew how AEDs worked and had taught others to use them.

Robert Gonterman, a public safety officer at Springfield’s airport, never had used cardiopulmonary resuscitation in a real emergency, though he had known the technique for decades and had taught others CPR.

As a registered nurse, Churchill’s wife, Lisa, had known CPR for years but never had used it outside a medical setting.

But all their expertise and training came into play during a chance encounter with a man having a heart attack one year ago Tuesday at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport. Their actions likely saved the man’s life, according to state public health officials.

“Without the combined efforts of these individuals, the outcome may have been very different,” according to a news release from the Illinois Department of Public Health honoring the Churchills and Gonterman as recipients of “EMS Hero Awards.”

The awards, given at the beginning of a week set aside to honor emergency medical services workers nationwide, are designed to thank both professional and volunteer EMS providers “for their courage, time and dedication,” the release says.

The Springfield man who was rescued last May, Dennis Belk, 52, of Springfield, said Monday: “I’ve been feeling pretty good, and things are going well. I’m just grateful for everyone who was involved in saving my life.”

No time to think
Belk, an automotive maintenance administrator for the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, was working his second job as a tow-truck driver for a local garage when his heart attack took place.

On a warm Sunday morning, Belk had towed a damaged car to a rental-car outlet at the airport. He walked inside the terminal to drop off the car’s keys when he collapsed.

Belk said he learned all of these details later, because he actually doesn’t remember anything after he picked up the car on Springfield’s south side and before he woke up a few days into what would be a 10-day stay at Memorial Medical Center.

Gonterman, 52, a Springfield resident, was on duty when Belk collapsed near the baggage claim area. Gonterman was notified of a man who had collapsed and apparently was having a seizure.

About the time he was notified, Gonterman had greeted Brian Churchill, a friend and the facilitator of EMS and emergency management for HSHS St. John’s Hospital. Churchill was waiting to depart for a flight to Dallas with a buddy to see a concert by the rock band Rush.

- Churchill’s wife, Lisa, 53, who works at a Memorial Health System ExpressCare, had dropped him off and was waiting with him for the flight.

Gonterman asked Churchill to help with the emergency call. When they rushed the 50 yards to the baggage claim area, it was apparent to Churchill that Belk — unconscious and on his back with no pulse and shallow breathing — was going through a cardiac arrest.

Gonterman immediately began chest compressions, known as “hands-only CPR.”

“I didn’t really have much time to be nervous,” he said. “All of the training takes over.”

Within seconds, an airport janitor arrived with a nearby AED — the type of equipment that increasingly is being placed in convenient locations where people congregate in airports, gymnasiums and other public places.

Gonterman continued compressions while Churchill placed the AED’s sticky pads on Belk’s upper right chest and his side. Over the next 15 to 20 minutes, Churchill and Gonterman would press a button to shock Belk’s heart four times after the device detected an irregular, “shockable rhythm.” Churchill’s wife, Lisa, helped Gonterman with chest compressions.

Belk was still unconscious, and his heart remained in a dangerously irregular rhythm, when paramedics from the Springfield Fire Department and LifeStar Ambulance arrived to take over. But the trio had kept blood flowing in Belk’s body and started the process of getting the heart back to a normal rhythm, Brian Churchill said.

Healthier living
The trio didn’t know Belk’s fate when he was brought to Memorial. Brian Churchill left to make his flight.

“It was a good concert,” he said.

Lisa Churchill learned later that day, however, that Belk had survived and was doing pretty well. She informed her husband. Gonterman learned the same thing. They got more good news later.

Once at Memorial, Belk received a cardiac catheterization that detected multiple blockages in his coronary arteries, including a blockage known as the “widow maker,” Belk said. Doctors used a catheter to clear the blockages and inserted three stents to keep the vessels clear.

He ended up receiving another stent a month later.

Belk recovered enough to return to his Secretary of State job in July. He opted not to return to his part-time towing job, which he had been working to earn extra money.

He said he quit “cold turkey” the pack-a-day cigarette habit he began at age 16. He has started eating better, eliminated a lot of salt from his diet and exercised more, he said.

- Belk and his wife of 29 years, Susan Belk, 54, met Rochester residents Brian and Lisa Churchill for lunch in September to thank them. It was an emotional time, especially for Susan Belk. Gonterman wasn’t able to make the meeting.

Lisa Churchill said Gary Belk’s recovery made her feel great.

“You get kind of jaded, because not many people survive something like this,” she said.

In fact, almost 90 percent of people who suffer a cardiac arrest outside a hospital die, according to the American Heart Association. But CPR performed within the first few minutes doubles or triples a person’s chance of survival, the association says.

Use of an AED improves the odds further, according to Brian Churchill.

‘System worked’
The lesson to be gleaned from Gary Belk’s case is that training on CPR and use of an AED, along with conveniently located AEDs, can make the difference between life and death, Churchill said.

People don’t have to be experts to provide lifesaving care, he said.

“I was very pleased,” Churchill said of the experience. “I was glad we have a system in this town that puts AED in important places. It just made me feel good about the EMS system I’m part of.”

Ambulances, paramedics, hospital emergency rooms, surgeons, cardiologists and other medical specialists all are part of that system, he said.

“All of these things came into play,” Churchill said. “The system worked.”

Copyright 2016 The State Journal-Register