Quick first response gives Villager gift of holiday joy

Heart attack victim Alan Byer, right, of the Village of Amelia, shares his gratitude for saving his life as he embraces Villages Public Safety Department firefighter/paramedic Nicole Leonardi at Public Safety Station 51.

Alan and Marilyn Byer, of the Village of Amelia, gathered with friends and family for a Hanukkah celebration on Wednesday. Were it not for the quick response of  first responders, Alan might not have been there. On Aug. 10, he nearly died from a cardiac event. The Villages Public Safety Department and American Medical Response got him to a catheter lab at Leesburg Regional Medical Center, saving his life. Alan was working on a home improvement project. Marilyn, his wife, wasn’t home. “I had told Marilyn it was a good time to go shopping,” Alan said. “I worked outside for about two hours, and it was hot. Very hot. Suddenly, I broke into an incredible sweat and got weak.”

He went inside to lie on the bathroom floor.

“Because it was cool,” he said. “And besides, I was sweating so badly I would have just left a puddle.”

He called Marilyn to tell her he didn’t feel good.

She told him to hang up and call 911.

He did. By that time, 76-year-old Alan was beginning to feel like an elephant was sitting on his chest. The pain was unbearable.

“Please hurry,” he recalled thinking. “Please bring something along to take the pain away.”

Meanwhile, Marilyn, afraid Alan would pass out, was also calling 911. She reached an operator sitting next to the one Alan had reached.

“Is he still alive?” she asked.

“Yes,” the operator said. “He’s speaking with the person next to me.”

It was a small comfort to Marilyn.

“I’m crying through the whole thing,” she said. “I started crying as soon as Alan called me. He was gasping on the phone. It was the most terrifying phone call. ‘I’m going to lose my husband.’ That was all I could think of.”

An AMR ambulance crew arrived at the Byers’ home within minutes, followed closely by Public Safety Rescue 51.

“They jumped on me like crazy,” Alan said. “They instantly put on an EKG. Instantly set up a defibrillator. At that point I was down to 20 beats per minute and almost no pressure.”

The firefighter/paramedic on Rescue 51, Nicole Leonardi, remembers it a little differently.

“We walked into complete chaos,” she said. “He was in so much discomfort that we couldn’t properly assess him. He was rolling around on the floor in pain, which is completely understandable, but it made it incredibly challenging.”

The fact that he’d sought out a cool spot to lie down didn’t help either.

“He was in a bathroom,” said Firefighter/EMT Clyde Christian. “It was a really tight space. In a perfect world people would have heart attacks in wide-open spaces, or sitting up in a chair somewhere.”

Leonardi took charge of the situation and said they had to get Alan on a gurney and strapped down so they could begin working on him. They were talking to him the whole time.

“We’re working on you,” Nicole told him. “Stay calm. You’re going to be OK. No, I can’t give you any painkiller. You’ll get some at the hospital.”

The got him into the ambulance as Marilyn was driving home as quickly as she could.

“We’ve lived here 12 years,” she said. “I got lost coming home. I was racing around in circles.”

She pulled onto her street just as the ambulance was pulling away. She was still on the phone with the 911 operator. She said she was going to follow the ambulance.

“No, no,” the operator said. “Do not follow the ambulance. They will go through red lights. You’ll get in an accident if you try to follow them. Let me stay on the phone with you. I’ll talk to you the whole way.”

She stayed on the phone with the 911 operator all the way to the hospital.

In the ambulance, Alan was fighting for his life, while Leonardi was fighting to save him.

They had given him nitroglycerin to help oxygenate his blood, but still they almost lost him on the way to the hospital. They turned to electrical stimulation to keep his heart active.

“We were pacing him, beating his heart for him,” Leonardi said. “It does shock you enough to where you’re jumping. I don’t know if he remembers how many times I said, ‘I’m sorry,’ because I knew how much it was hurting him.”

They got him to the hospital and handed him off to the catheter lab.

If left untreated, Alan’s heart blockage could have led to a cardiac arrest, said Kara Watts, division chief of EMS training for the public safety department. Only a quick response prevented this from happening.

Alan came home five days later. The doctors cleared him for travel just in time to go to Boston for the bris of his newborn grandson, Nathan Levin. He and Marilyn left Aug. 23, less than two weeks after the incident. Alan was able to hold his grandson during the ceremony held Aug. 28.

It is a Jewish tradition to use the name of recently passed family members for the new child. Marilyn had been afraid Nathan’s middle name would be Alan. Instead it’s Everett.

“He has a lovely name,” she said. “I’m just glad it’s not his.”

About a month after the Boston ceremony, Alan got the chance to thank his rescuers personally. He and Marilyn went to Station 51 to meet with Leonardi and Christian. The firefighters reacted with joy upon seeing him.

“It’s so good to see you,” Leonardi said. “The last time I saw you it broke my heart. Your face is a face I will never forget for the rest of my life.”

Meeting the people they save is a rare occurrence for the firefighters, Christian said.

“It’s very humbling,” he said. “Even if this never happens again, that’s the reason I’m here. It takes all those bad experiences and the experiences you wish you hadn’t seen and almost makes it all go away. You can have 10 things go wrong, but that one thing it’s encouraging. If I can save one person, I’ll feel like I’ve done a 30-year career.”

While the firefighters were thankful to see Alan up and about after his ordeal, Alan was thankful they and the ambulance crew, 911 operators and doctors were able to save him.

“Those people saved my life,” he said. “Every one of them.”

Staff writer Phill Stuart can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5332, or phillip.stuart@thevillagesmedia.com.