Something odd happens when you host a ceremony to recognize the life-saving efforts of first responders: They are visibly uncomfortable.
During remarks Monday night at the North Mankato Police Annex, Chief Ross Gullickson conceded as much while addressing the three officers, two paramedics and an emergency medical technician who sat in the front row facing him.
“I would venture to say that each of the responders we are recognizing tonight are perhaps a bit uncomfortable in receiving praise, attention or accolades for their actions,” Gullickson said. “I would imagine each would say something to the effect of, ‘I was just doing my job.'”
But their jobs tend toward the extreme.
Proof of that is 68-year-old Bob Homer, who likely wouldn’t have been alive to meet the responders Monday night if their actions in the “chain of survival” had not restarted his pulse following sudden cardiac arrest.
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The task began July 6 at 1:24 a.m., when a 911 call reported a “male party” was unconscious and not breathing at a North Mankato residence. The first person to try CPR on Homer was his adult daughter, Amy, who received instructions over the phone while officers hurried to the scene.
“He was laying on the floor, kind of curled up in a ball. And he was gray, which obviously said he didn’t have any oxygen. I listened for a heartbeat — we didn’t have one,” said Amy, who noted she wasn’t formally trained to conduct CPR but learned it in Boy Scouts. Homer has led a troop for decades.
Within minutes Amy was relieved by Lt. Shawn Morgan, a 23-year veteran of the North Mankato force, and Officer Jacob Vitzthum, who joined in January 2020.
Vitzthum was the first to enter the home while Morgan grabbed a medical kit, which contained an automated external defibrillator with which they would soon deliver two shocks to Homer. Officer Audrey Kruger soon arrived and set up oxygen to give him.
“It’s really just repetition,” Vitzthum said of how officers manage stress during crises. “Doing this job, you’re in stressful situations nightly it seems like. And after a while, as with anything, you just get used to it. You learn how to react and control your emotions a little bit better.”
Homer’s chances of survival increased again with the arrival of paramedics Scott Dowty and Matthew Trainor alongside EMT Thomas Allen, who were in the midst of their regular 12-hour (or longer) overnight shifts for the Mayo Clinic Health System.
They reestablished Homer’s pulse over the next 35 minutes before he was taken first to the local hospital and then flown by helicopter to Rochester, where stents were inserted to allow for blood flow in his blocked arteries.
Within a few days, somewhat miraculously, he walked out of the Mayo Clinic hospital.
“Lots of times we have no idea what happens to patients when they’re gone in an ambulance, so it’s nice to hear that they made a full recovery,” Kruger said.
Dr. Paul Williams of the Mayo Clinic Health System — who was a Boy Scout when Homer was a scout leader, the older man said before the ceremony — noted that walking out after mere days in the hospital is rarely the fate of people who endure out-of-hospital cardiac arrest.
More than 350,000 people annually experience cardiac arrest outside of a hospital. Of every 10 victims, the doctor said, nine die.
“Many people do not realize that sudden cardiac arrest is the third leading cause of death in the United States,” Williams said.
On average, Trainor estimates, paramedics encounter one or two incidents of sudden cardiac arrest a month. He is blunt about how those usually end: “Poorly, unfortunately.”
The July call was the first time paramedics tried new Mayo Clinic guidelines for resuscitating victims of cardiac arrest, they said. Instead of two-minute cycles of CPR, they did the procedure for one minute and used the anesthetic lidocaine, which typically had been neglected in favor of other drugs.
“A lot of times we’re not there early enough,” Trainor said. “Bob’s family actually starting CPR is probably the most important thing in that chain of survival. If they hadn’t done that, there wouldn’t have been anything for us to do when we got there either.”
None of the first responders had seen Homer or his family members since that July morning when they saved his life.
While Dowty and Allen worked to keep Homer alive in the ambulance, Trainor remembers his conversation with Pam, Homer’s wife of four decades. She told the room Monday that his and others’ calming presence made her feel as comfortable as possible while her husband’s life was at stake.
As soon as Trainor walked into the room Monday, Pam approached and embraced him for a long hug.
“I don’t think we need the recognition all the time,” Trainor said, earning nods from his colleagues. “I mean it’s nice to receive it, but I would much rather take seeing Bob and getting to shake his hand and see him doing well as opposed to an award ceremony or anything else.”
Darkened bags surrounded Trainor’s bleary eyes Monday night. He said he had just woken up after working 16 hours overnight, from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. Allen and Dowty had about an hour upon the ceremony’s conclusion to prepare for their 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.
Just as they did with Homer, through routine tasks and drastic ones, Trainor said they try to imagine each person they encounter as a close friend or family member who is deeply worried about the fate of a loved one.
“(First responders) nowadays don’t get enough praise for what they do,” Homer said.
For Homer’s part, he plans in the coming years to travel to the Grand Canyon and the Smoky Mountains with his wife following a 45-year career at Berry Global plastics company in Mankato. He hopes also to return to his role as a scout leader and see the kids for whom “he would do anything.”
A tall man with long, skinny legs, Homer has been doing light workouts to regain his endurance. The chest compressions pushed his sternum out of line for two months, causing lingering discomfort.
Though all the emergency responders agreed that seeing Homer and shaking his hand would be enough to make the night worthwhile, he had different plans.
“See, I’m a recovering alcoholic,” he said. He added: “See, recovering alcoholics, they do a lot of hugging.”
As the chief closed the official remarks and announced that the six responders would receive “letters of commendation,” they stood side by side at the front of the small room and awaited handshakes.
Homer’s daughter went first, shaking every hand. His wife followed, giving a half-handshake, half-hug to each person.
Homer opened both arms wide for six embraces, complete with firm pats on the back heard throughout the room.
The six responders softened at the gesture, seeming more comfortable than they had all night.
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