Upset over a work-related meeting that morning, Schaumburg Township bus driver Charles Perce huffed out of the office June 14 and walked toward his bus to begin his routes.
A short distance away, his co-worker, Nick Chapas, was steering his dump truck out of the garage and saw Perce suddenly fall to his knees, then onto his side.
"I knew something was wrong," Chapas said. "So I whipped my truck around and called 911."
Chapas raced over to Perce, whom he only casually knew, and rolled him onto his back. He was not breathing.
Since Chapas didn’t really know CPR, the 911 dispatcher guided him on what to do. Kneeling in the parking lot, holding his cell phone between his shoulder and ear, Chapas pumped Perce’s chest and followed the dispatcher’s instructions.
"He’d gasp for air once in a while ... but I thought he was pretty much done," said Chapas, 55, of Elk Grove Village. "The next thing I know, someone said, ‘I’ll take over from here.’ And the paramedics were there."
The Hoffman Estates Fire Department paramedics worked for a long time to revive Perce, 72, who had turned blue. They gave him numerous paddle shocks to get his heart beating again, and a few times, Chapas overheard the paramedics say, "We lost him. We lost him."
"They didn’t give up, though. They kept on trying everything. I was impressed," Chapas said.
When Perce arrived at St. Alexius Medical Center, his condition was very critical, said Dr. Tarek Alahdab. He had suffered a major heart attack brought on by stress.
"The doctors were saying it was very grim. He could die at any moment ... and even if he didn’t die, he’d be severely brain damaged," said Perce’s daughter, Chandra Ary of Elgin. "You couldn’t even get to him there were so many machines and IVs around him."
Instead, Perce made a complete recovery. His family calls it "a miracle."
A combination of things worked in Perce’s favor that morning: Chapas immediately called 911 and started CPR; the 911 dispatcher gave accurate CPR instructions; the paramedics refused to give up on him; and the St. Alexius hospital staff made the decision to immediately use a new hypothermia therapy on him, which essentially "freezes" the body to minimize brain damage.
Perce’s family jokes that his stubbornness probably played a role, too.
"My mother always told me that when it’s your turn to go, God flips your card. I think my card stood on edge there for a while," joked Perce, sitting in his Schaumburg home surrounded by his family and the dozens of get well cards sent to him by the seniors on his township bus routes.
"If it wouldn’t have been for Nick (Chapas), I wouldn’t be here. Believe me," he said.
However, Chapas rejects the hero title, saying he just did what "a human being would do" in that situation.
"To me, the paramedics were unbelievable," said Chapas, a township employee for the past nine years.
Chapas only agreed to be interviewed for the story because "maybe somebody will read this and go out of their way to help somebody."
"In the back of my mind, I’ll never forget when my parents were both sickly and I’d see people help them. So I think, this is someone’s dad and I’m going to help him," he said.
Perce, a former Chicago police officer who turns 73 later this month, says he feels great and wants to return to his full-time bus driver job because he misses seeing the seniors he drives each day. But the doctors won’t let him drive for six months. Besides, everyone’s encouraging him to retire.
In the meantime, Perce said he’s trying to control his stress and not let little things get to him. If there’s something people can learn from his story, it’s that, he said.
"It all adds up," Perce said. "If you don’t control your emotions, it’s going to get you."
Dr. Alahdab agreed, saying stress is often a contributing factor in heart attacks.
"People who are short of sleep, overworked, no relaxation, they don’t have thick skin ... they get deeply affected," Alahdab said. "If you have stress management techniques, your chance of survival is higher."
Alahdab said Perce’s amazing recovery is also a result of the good work by the St. Alexius emergency room and Intensive Care Unit staff, including Dr. Scott Neeley and nurses Kinga Rydel and Maui Mendez.
"People in this situation ... if they recover, they usually have significant brain injuries," Alahdab said. "(Perce) made it. He was lucky."