Home » Media Center » The Communicator » October 2018 Three PEF nurses save a life

Right place, right time and a miracle occurs

SIX WEEKS LATER — Katharine Freeborn, Lindsay Watkins. Greg O’Polka and Amanda DeFoe pose in front of the CrossFit Syracuse gym. The nurses, (including Katheryn Dunn, not shown) helped save O’Polka’s life after he experienced a widow-maker heart attack. They met to celebrate his recovery. O’Polka said it was emotional and rewarding for him to see his heroes. — Photo by Dawn O’Polka


On the morning of August 10, Greg O’Polka was with his workout group at the CrossFit Syracuse gym, starting their fitness regime with an outdoor run up a hill. Half way up, he stopped, put his hands on his knees and collapsed. He gashed his forehead and blood dripped down his face. One of the runners, a young girl, saw O’Polka fall, and yelled for help.

That’s when a miracle started to happen.

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Amanda DeFoe, a part of the group, is a neo-natal intensive care nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center and former lifeguard. She ran to his side and told the young girl to get help.

“At first, Greg was alert, but seemed confused. We tried to get him to relax, but something wasn’t right,” DeFoe said. “He started agonal breathing and I started to get nervous. Adrenalin was rushing through me. I started shaking and I wasn’t sure if I felt a pulse or not. I knew he wasn’t breathing. So, the first thing I did was give him breath, I tried to relax and checked his pulse again. He definitely did not have one. At that point, another man from the gym, Cam, started compressions while I was doing breaths.”

In the interim, the young girl raced to the gym and shouted that someone fell and needed help.

That’s when phase two of the miracle occurred.

Three SUNY Upstate Medical University nurses just finished their hour-long workout and were filling their water bottles when they heard the cry for help. Without hesitation, PEF members Katharine Freeborn, Katheryn Dunn and Lindsay Watkins ran out of the gym. Watkins noticed and grabbed an automated external defibrillator (AED). They jumped into a waiting car, and in less than a minute they were at the scene.

“While we drove up the hill, I opened the AED and turned it on, as I never used one like that before and wanted to check it out. As soon as we got out of the car, we saw they were doing CPR,” Watkins said.

“When the trio arrived, I saw they had the mask and AED, and obviously were ready to take charge of the situation, so I stepped back,” DeFoe said.

The three SUNY Upstate nurses, who had worked together at the hospital’s Rapid Response “Swat” Team, were accustomed to saving lives in the hospital. But being on the side of the road without more equipment and medications didn’t prevent them from assuming their rapid-response roles.

“Initially, when someone told us a man had just fallen, I didn’t think he would be in cardiac arrest, I thought maybe he tripped and fell or experienced heat stroke. But when I first laid eyes on him, I realized he was in cardiac arrest and went into work mode. We have all worked together before, so we assumed our roles with unspoken communication between us. We knew what we had to do and just did it,” Freeborn said.

“I felt very emotionally overwhelmed,” Watkins added. “I didn’t know the guy. He looked very young and healthy. I thought he probably has a family. I hope he’s going to be OK.”

Within minutes, an ambulance arrived and O’Polka was taken into surgery. He had suffered a massive heart attack, known as a “widowmaker.” People who suffer cardiac arrests outside a hospital have a 6 percent chance of survival. Those chances are even slimmer with a widowmaker, a condition where the artery is 100 percent blocked.

This is the miracle.

Five weeks after the surgery, O’Polka celebrated his 55th birthday with his family. His cardiologist cleared him to drive, walk his dog, and mow his lawn.

“That’s pretty good,” O’Polka said. “I can’t say enough about the nurses. What they did was absolutely amazing. I understand they do those things for a living, but to do it for a living and do it outside your work environment are two different things. Their actions and response were professional and right on point. They could not have done any better.

“I used to be in the military. If you were repeatedly trained to do something in a certain way, often when someone would go out on his own to do that action, not everyone could perform it in the same way as in training. These girls are obviously good at work and they proved to be good in the field, which is just amazing to me.”

DeFoe said, “It’s important for everyone to have some CPR knowledge, to start this important life-saving process before anyone else gets on the scene. If I hadn’t know what to do and stood there helpless, and he didn’t make it, I don’t know how I would deal with that.”

Watkins who never used an AED on a real person before O’Polka, agreed.

“Early defibrillation and early CPR saves lives. It was the electricity that brought him back to life.”

It was also the nurses being at the right place at the right time. And it is something they will remember for the rest of their lives.

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