Rescued from a Killer

Connie Collins locks the housing after placing the AED unit in it as neighbors watch during an AED installment parade and celebration earlier this year in the Village of Pine Hills.

Brayden Moeller, 14, is crushing high school, thanks to a coach who rushed the soccer field after the teen was struck by lightning.

Tom Davies, 76, is targeting the next Senior Games after a recreation supervisor and other swimmers pulled him from the water, unresponsive, and began lifesaving measures.

Paul Andre, 65, is looking forward to his 35th wedding anniversary in August with his wife, Sher, because neighbors leapt into action after he collapsed in his home.

Larry Bidwell, 79, is enjoying his grandkids and working on his golf game after a fellow softball player raced to his aid when he collapsed on the field.

Billy LaCasse, 71, is laughing with buddies on the back nine again because a neighbor bolted to his rescue when he went into cardiac arrest while mowing his lawn.

They’re all products of an army like no other — thousands of trained bystanders who drive our community’s cardiac save rate to four times the national average, the Daily Sun found during an 18-month investigation of cities with populations of 100,000.

Here, the survival rate from a cardiac event peaks at 40%, compared to the national average of 10%, according to the Daily Sun’s analysis.

It’s a remarkable statistic for Sumter County, which has the nation’s highest median age of 67. More than 2,200 Americans with a median age of 64 will die from a cardiac event today, or nearly 800,000 this year (one in every three deaths), according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Every second counts since a patient will typically lose brain function within four minutes of a cardiac arrest. For every one-minute delay in starting CPR and using an automatic external defibrillator (AED), the chance of survival decreases by 10%.

Homes here are master-planned with a proximity to fire stations that allows for an average response time of  4.5 minutes — much faster than the industry standard of 6 to 8 minutes for urban areas.

But it’s the nearly 500 AEDs installed at private homes through the Neighbors Saving Neighbors Program that sets the community apart.

CPR buys time, but an AED buys life.

That’s because when sudden cardiac arrest occurs, the heart either starts to flutter — but not enough to pump blood — or races at a dangerous pace. CPR makes the heart pump and keeps oxygen flowing to the body, but it will not “start” the heart.

AEDs, priced at about $1,500, can detect whether an electrical shock is needed to reset an abnormal heart rhythm, and then deliver it.

On a per-capita basis, The Villages has more of the portable computerized devices, and more citizens trained in their use, than any other U.S. community for which data is available, the Daily Sun first reported in February.

This year, an AED was deployed in 35% of the 17 cases where lives were saved during sudden cardiac events, according to the Daily Sun analysis. Bystanders played a role in 77% of those rescues. 

Nationally, an AED was used less than 12% of the time and only 39% of such patients received CPR from a bystander, according to Cardiac Arrest Registry to Enhance Survival (CARES), a CDC-Emory University project that tracks such data.

In the 10 months since the Daily Sun published its findings:

At least 142 more AEDs have been added to the newspaper’s exhaustive canvassing of neighborhoods, businesses, churches, government offices, recreation centers, public safety vehicles and other locations, bringing the total number to 752 — the highest number per capita in America.

A surge in demand filled all CPR/AED classes offered by the Villages Public Safety Department heading into 2020, prompting the agency to double the number of classes.

More than 1,500 local citizens were trained in AED use by The Villages Public Safety this year, a nearly 25% increase in the total number.

Another approximately 650 residents were trained by Community Emergency Response Team volunteers this year, a 20% increase from 2018.

Villages Public Safety received hundreds of requests for information on neighborhood AED programs. At least 69 more AEDs, a 16 percent increase from 2018, have been installed in 18 neighborhoods.

Community Watch, which had 20 vehicles equipped with AEDs, added one more. It also began arming its foot patrols with AEDs nightly from 5 to 9 p.m. on the three town squares full of thousands of retirees.

Statewide, Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, has filed a bill to make CPR classes a Florida high school graduation requirement as 36 other states mandate.

Nationally, a few other communities boast cardiac save rates above 10%, but there continues to be no national mechanism for them to share their innovative approaches. CARES is based solely on voluntary reporting and keeps much of its data confidential.

However, officials in several Florida counties have begun to respond to the Daily Sun’s call to report to CARES. Today, at least 47 Florida EMS providers and 170 hospitals in Florida have supplied data on more than 3,500 cardiac arrests.

Lifesaving Concept  Spreads Beyond Villages

The Villages Public Safety’s Neighbors Saving Neighbors model — pioneered by resident Lew Simon — allows dispatchers to alert trained citizens to respond with an AED before emergency workers arrive.

Today, the program boasts 213 active neighborhood groups with 4,012 trained responders. They often make the life-or-death difference, as CARES estimates 70% of all sudden cardiac events occur at home.

“The early (bystander) CPR link has always been the most difficult,” said Dr. Kenneth Scheppke, Florida’s EMS medical director. “I’ve not seen a program that has as much as promise as this one. I’m trying to get it into my own community.”

Twelve years ago when three people died of sudden cardiac arrest on Stonecrest’s golf course within roughly 45 days, Martha Mitchell, a retired nurse connected with Simon to see what could be done.

Now the community of about 2,400 homes just outside The Villages has 32 AEDs and 343 trained responders in its Neighbors Helping Neighbors program, which operates as a nonprofit under a medical director.

“We kind of brainstormed it together,” Mitchell said. “They have a wonderful program in The Villages. I just went a slightly different direction.”

The program in Stonecrest has had one save so far.

“I only wanted one save to show the program worked,” Mitchell said. “The dedication to the program has been amazing. The people here do it unconditionally. They want to help their neighbors.”

The same year the program in Stonecrest went live, the seeds of two future programs in Pasco County were planted in The Villages.

Joe and Jonsey Castellano brought the Neighbors Saving Neighbors program to the Lake Jovita community after having dinner with a resident saved by the program here.

“They didn’t have to sell me hard,” said Tim Reardon, Pasco County Fire Rescue’s division chief of rescue. “We sat down and discussed ideas and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ If I could expand the program, I’d have one on every street corner in Pasco County.”

The Castellanos’ friends, Sue Dugan and Jeffrey Potter, then brought four AEDs and 117 trained responders to two of the 10 homeowners associations in Tampa Bay Golf and County Club. They’re working on the other eight.

“The first thing that struck me was that it was so easy,” Jeffery Potter said. “It was a no-brainer. Everything was already in place. Also, Lew coming down. He’s so passionate. We were just convinced it was the right thing for our community.”

North Port Fire Rescue Division Chief of EMS Karl Bennett is also a believer. He’s proposed the program to Sarasota County, and its 911 dispatch center is evaluating the program.

“It’s awesome how it’s made a difference in The Villages, and that’s how I know it will work here,” he said.

Simon’s tireless evangelism has won followers out west as well. 

The Springs, a 55-plus community in Green Valley, Arizona, is approaching startup mode for the program to serve about 21,500 residents. Its Neighborhood Chain of Survival Project came about after a group of cardiologists connected with Simon.

“We decided we were going to promote this anywhere we could,” said Tom Colberg, the project’s chairman. “The Villages alone has convinced me of its worth. Lew Simon and The Villages provide most of our energy.”

Neighbors Really Do Save Other Neighbors

Six months later, Sher Andre is still haunted by the sickening crackling sound her husband, Paul, 65, made as he took what could have been his final breaths.

He’d just returned home to the Village of Dunedin from a July bike ride and asked his wife for ice water and more fan action when she told him to go lie down.

“I heard this sound that sounded like a death rattle,” she recalled. “I ran into (the bedroom) and he had already started to turn gray. So I called 911.”

That triggered the Neighbors Saving Neighbors Program, and multiple trained neighbors darted right over. Stacy Dintaman started CPR until others could arrive and move Paul from the bed to the floor.

“The proof is here that the program works,” she said. “Everyone reacted, and it worked.”

The neighborhood’s director of responders, Tom Murphy, also answered the call and helped with CPR.

“When I got there, I checked for a pulse and I listened for breathing and got nothing, so I just continued CPR,” Murphy said.

Emergency responders arrived and took Paul away and finished the process of bringing him back to life.

Paul said he now wants to become an AED responder in hopes of saving others.

“I look at that group a lot differently now,” he said. “They are guardian angels.”

In the first week of December alone, three residents went into cardiac arrest, and all three were revived and rushed to the hospital with a pulse in place.

Among them is Terri Jordan, 63, of Village of Chatham, whose heart stopped on the Rohan Recreation Center’s pickleball court Dec. 4.

Her pickleball group included a retired firefighter, doctor, nurse and dentist, all of whom swooped into action to initiate CPR and retrieve an AED. Only 48 seconds after applying the AED, it was delivering the first of two shocks, allowing Jordan to regain consciousness.

When Public Safety’s Engine 47 arrived three minutes and 24 seconds later, Jordan was already alert and able to speak with medics as they prepared her for transport.

She spent a week in Leesburg Regional Medical Center before being transferred to UF Health Shands in Gainesville, where doctors implanted a cardioverter-defibrillator to pace her heart.

She said she’s on the road to recovery and expects to return to the pickleball court.

She’s already reunited with most of her rescue team. What were her first words to them?

“Actually we just cried,” Jordan said. “’Thank you’ is so paltry a thing to say to someone who saved your life.”

Jordan said her medical scare is a ringing endorsement for those contemplating taking CPR and AED training to get it done.

“Don’t even hesitate,” she said. “I’m the least likely person to have a cardiac event, but I did. You never know when you might need it (CPR/AED training).”

Villages Public Safety Chief Edmund Cain agrees.

“I thank the residents for their due diligence to learn CPR and AED skills and to have AEDs,” he said. “They are not only a great lifesaving asset to their friends and neighbors, but their visitors to The Villages as well.”

Meanwhile Simon, whose own father’s life was saved by an AED, continues to press toward a goal of 100% coverage in The Villages.

“When I look at my neighbor, I think, ‘I did something that saved his life.’” he said. “What more can you ask for than that?”

Managing Editor Curt Hills can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5287, or curt.hills@thevillagesmedia.com. Staff writer Phill Stuart can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5332, or phillip.stuart@thevillagesmedia.com. Associate Managing Editor Mackenzie Raetz contributed to this report.