A Christmas Miracle

PITTSBURGH, PA–It was Christmas night when volunteer Firefighter/EMT Nick Gerstel sat down for dinner with his family in Penn Hills, a suburb of Pittsburgh. It had been a quiet day for the volunteer department located just a short mile or so down the road from the Gerstel residence. In a matter of moments, that all changed. Christmas dinner was going to have to wait. The Gerstels are used to their family gatherings being interrupted by emergency calls for service—the family has more than 50 years of public safety experience sitting at their dinner table.

A call came in for a 62-year-old-man who had suffered a sudden cardiac arrest while celebrating Christmas with his family at his home just down the street from the Gerstels. The Gerstel family knew the magnitude of such a call and decided Christmas dinner was going to have to wait.

“Survival rates for sudden cardiac arrest decrease 10% with each passing minute,” said Gerstel during an interview after the incident. “We have an AED at the fire station, which is only a minute or two away. It was imperative to get it to the patient as quickly as possible.”

Rosedale Fire Department and its members have been advocates for CPR and automated external defibrillators since 2002 when they acquired their first AED through a grant from St. Margaret Hospital. They frequently hold classes for the public and public safety/ healthcare professionals. Gerstel is not only proficient in CPR—he has been an instructor for more than five years. He regularly teaches classes for an emergency education company, EmergiLearn Solutions, which was started by a group of former Rosedale VFD firefighters.

Gerstel quickly phoned the fire station and let the other responders know he would be heading directly to the patient’s side. Christmas night was an exceptionally busy evening for the ambulances in Penn Hills and the transport unit that was on its way was in a neighboring town, about 10-15 minutes away. So Gerstel instructed the responders at the fire station to bring the AED and other emergency equipment. Meanwhile, he arrived at the patient’s house and found him unconscious, not breathing, and pulseless in the kitchen. Luckily, there was a nurse in the house and she had quickly recognized the cardiac arrest and started CPR. Gerstel quickly stepped in to assist. The man’s family surrounded him and hoped for the best. This man’s life was in Gerstel’s hands as he started CPR and kept the blood flowing to the man’s brain and other important organs. The CPR was helpful, but Gerstel knew the AED was key to saving this man’s life.

The other rescuers arrived a few moments later with the AED and other equipment. Gerstel and the crew hurriedly worked to hook-up the defibrillator pads to the man’s chest because they knew the clock was ticking.

“I heard the machine power on and analyze the man’s heart rhythm. A few seconds later the AED advised that a shock was necessary. I couldn’t believe what I heard,” Gerstel explained. “I had been to multiple cardiac arrest calls with the fire department, but we were always too late. The AED had never recommended a shock because we weren’t able to get to the patient quickly enough.” Today was different.

Gerstel looked around, made sure all the other rescuers were clear of the patient and without hesitation he pressed the “shock” button on the AED. After one shock, the man’s pulse returned and he started breathing on his own. Nick and the crew continued to care for the man until the paramedics arrived.

Once the paramedics and EMTs from Plum EMS arrived at the scene, they provided advanced life support care for the patient and transported him to a nearby hospital. The patient was admitted to the hospital and is expected to make a full recovery.

After the incident, Gerstel said, “Without the AED and quick response time from the crew at Rosedale VFD, this may not have been a Christmas miracle after all. The AED was so easy to use and it worked flawlessly. I’m thankful I was nearby and able to use the skills I have developed throughout my career to help this man on Christmas night.”

What about the Gerstel Christmas dinner?  They may have had to enjoy it a little later than expected, but they had something really special to be thankful for this year.

-Matthew Strauss, Director, EmergiLearn Solutions.

Matt is also a volunteer for the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation. He leads the Metro DC Affiliate.

-Nick Gerstel is the Manager of the Pittsburgh Branch of EmergiLearn Solutions.

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