Tenn. emergency team honored for response that saved child's life

Crossville-Cumberland County Emergency Communications Dispatcher Kelli Billingsley told the family how to start CPR before EMS providers could arrive


Heather Mullinix
Crossville Chronicle

CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Tenn. — Emergency responders often see people on their worst day, responding to calls that can forever change lives.

They do the work they are called to do, but they often never know the outcome once they pass their patient on to the next caregiver.

Crossville- Cumberland County Emergency Communications Dispatcher Kelli Billingsley is part of a team of emergency responders who saved the life of Samuel Neal.
Crossville- Cumberland County Emergency Communications Dispatcher Kelli Billingsley is part of a team of emergency responders who saved the life of Samuel Neal. (Photo/Crossville- Cumberland County Emergency)

One Cumberland County family recently had the opportunity to share their gratitude and thanks to the people who responded to their home last year, following a tragic accident that could have taken their one-year-old son, Samuel Neal, in a near-drowning incident.

"There was a miracle done that day in my backyard," father John Neal said.

The emergency responders who assisted the Neal family in the critical moments after finding Samuel were honored last week with the Region 4 Star of Life Award from the Children's Emergency Care Alliance during a special ceremony Wednesday that included a special recognition for Samuel, now two.

He was presented with a Certificate of Life recognizing his bravery and resiliency over the past year.

"It was a magical moment," mother Lacie Neal said. "I don't have the words — I am so grateful to have the best people here that do this job."

John and Lacie were at their home in rural Cumberland County May 1, 2021. Lacie was inside packing for a trip. John was outside with Samuel and his older sons, Elisha, now 9, and Zachariah, now 7.

When John realized he hadn't seen Samuel in a few minutes, he began looking around the yard and back inside, thinking the toddler had gone back in with his mother.

Then, he saw Samuel in the koi pond. John rushed and pulled him from the water, but Samuel was not breathing and didn't have a pulse.

"I hope you never see what I saw when I found Samuel. When you get in those situations and you go to praying, asking God to do something, and your child is lying there dead in your yard, and people like this come on the scene, you can never truly appreciate what they do for you," he said.

John yelled for Lacie. Lacie started to cry, but despite her frantic state, she remembered to call 9-1-1.

Crossville- Cumberland County Emergency Communications Dispatcher Kelli Billingsley answered. She immediately began calming the family to instruct them on starting CPR.

"I had one thing in my mind — Samuel you've got to wake up," John said during the Star of Life awards ceremony held Wednesday in Nashville.

He had never done CPR.

"She snapped us back to reality," John said of Billingsley, whom the family has formed a friendship with in the year since the accident.

As Billingsley directed the family on how to provide CPR, other dispatchers were sending help their way. The family lives in a rural area of Cumberland County in the Potato Farm Rd. area, and time was not on their side.

Cumberland County Sheriff's Office Deputies Kobe Cox and Ben Griffin were the first to arrive, with Sgt. Kevin Davis close behind. Cox took over CPR from John, and three officers took turns continuing CPR until Cumberland County Emergency Medical Services arrived.

EMS Paramedic Training Officer Daniel Coleman, Advanced EMT Rick Gregg and Advanced EMT Robert Ball arrived.

"I had to give the most precious thing I have to people I didn't even know," John said. "I just had to let go ... He was in their hands."

Samuel still had no pulse and was connected to a cardiac monitor that showed heart activity. The EMS crew determined that the lack of a pulse was due to hypoxia, a lack of oxygen. They needed to establish an airway for Samuel.

He was sedated and intubated. His chest began to rise and the level of oxygen in his blood began to rise. Excess water was suctioned from his lungs. As ventilation and chest compressions continued, Samuel's pulse returned.

They inserted lines to administer medication and kept a blanket between the small child's body and the board to help maintain his body heat.

Samuel began trying to breathe on his own, and his pupils were reactive to light, showing brain activity.

But Samuel had suffered a traumatic injury and would need additional care. The EMS crew called for an air ambulance to take him to a pediatric center for treatment, a trip that would take over an hour by vehicle.

While this was happening, John and Lacie were outside the ambulance. They were praying for their son.

"I'm thankful that God sent him back to us," John said.

The EMS crew called the family to the ambulance where they spoke to their son as they waited for Erlanger's Life Force 2 air ambulance to arrive from Sparta.

Cumberland County Fire Department Capt. James Threet responded to establish a safe landing zone for the helicopter, right next to the ambulance.

The flight crew included Flight Paramedic Robert Berger, Flight Nurse Leah Thomas and the pilot.

"It's such an eerie sight to see a helicopter land in your front yard, and they have to take your baby from you," John said. "There is so much going through your mind."

The flight crew took Samuel to East Tennessee Children's Hospital where they were met by staff from the emergency department.

"I can never thank these people enough," said John. "I hope you all realize how important you are. I'm thankful that God works through you."


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Samuel spent 11 days in the pediatric intensive care unit and another nine days in the hospital before he could return home.

Lacie said the community's response to their emergency was overwhelming — support that has continued for the past year. There were prayers, benefits and people ready to do whatever they could to help the family whose lives had been changed in an instant.

"To know we had people on our side and to know that we were not alone, it made recovery that much more special," Lacie said.

Today, Samuel is home with his parents and big brothers. He has therapy to help him overcome the injury caused by the lack of oxygen. Lacie said he's in therapy every day but Saturday and Sunday. The family is preparing to visit a clinic in Texas that specializes in the treatment of injuries like Samuel's.

"We're having to relearn a lot of things," Lacie said.

A Facebook page, Prayers for Samuel, established following the accident, continues to chronicle Samuel's recovery and progress.

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(c)2022 the Crossville Chronicle (Crossville, Tenn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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