Gail Witham wanted a cat.
On December 13, Gene and Gail Witham’s daughters, Carley Tipton and Collyn Roberts made a last-minute decision to bring a cat that Roberts had found. This was a bit of an anomaly. Coordinating a time to be together is difficult with their schedules. Making a last minute decision? Never happens.
Witham spent 42 years in law enforcement. If you tell him where you are coming from, he’ll tell you how long it’s going to take you to arrive at your destination. He’s very accurate. The day was like any other day. “You’ll get here at 4:30,” he told them on the phone. According to Roberts, they arrived at their parents’ home approximately 10 minutes later than he had calculated. The cat had a minor melt down and had necessitated a quick stop along the way.
While the girls brought the cat in, Witham took the supplies into the laundry room. He was still standing in the laundry room when suddenly he said, “I feel dizzy” and sat down hard on the floor. He was unresponsive. Just like that, he was gone.
All were frantic.
Both girls had left their glasses in the car. Roberts fumbled with the unfamiliar phone, trying to dial 911 and find the proper button to press to start the call. Miraculously, the call went through.
“What is your address?” asked the 911 operator.
“I don’t know,” Roberts replied.
“What is your phone number?”
“I don’t know.”
Fortunately, technology has come a long way. Enhanced 911 and Enhanced GPS are making it easier to find you when you call.
It had been 30 years since Roberts had any formal CPR training. Tipton, who had heard something recently about the changes in CPR, started working on their dad. She wasn’t sure about everything, but she knew compressions were supposed to be hard and fast.
“We were screaming at him and trying to do compressions," she said. "The room was so small.”
And Gene, at 6’4 ½”, is not a small man.
“You feel helpless, listening to the machine power up with the family all around,” he said.
The machine went through its cycle. Shock was indicated. Balch motioned everyone back and pressed the button.
At 4:51 emergency medical services (EMS) crew Allen Bennett, Duncan Cruickshank, Sara Tobin and Carol Wegdahl arrived on scene and took over.
At 5:00 they had Witham on the ambulance and en route to St. John’s Hospital. American Medical Response (AMR) was notified and a paramedic joined them mid-trip.
Witham’s heart stopped again.
In Longview, the decision was made to have him life-flighted to Vancouver. Witham’s family was told, “We do not have the staff here.”
The pilot made a call to land the helicopter in Woodland and Witham’s journey continued in an ambulance to SW Medical Center.
His heart stopped again. And again.
He was watched over that day. His heart had plumbing and electrical problems, according to Roberts. They were told the survival rate of this kind of heart attack was five percent. The cardiologist told the family, “I guarantee your dad is going to be okay. He’s not going to need surgery. His heart is already creating bypasses.”
"When the heart stops,” said Carol Wegdahl, the local EMS Battalion Commander and CPR instructor, “you have about four to six minutes before the brain starts dying. If we can get an AED on scene within four minutes, we can save lives.”
In 1995, on a Scandinavian cruise, a beloved local, the late Dr. Phillip Avalon watched his wife, Val, die while on transport from ship to shore. An AED might have saved her life, had one been on board.
“After that,” said Wegdahl, “Dr. Avalon was determined to make this technology available in our county.”
There are approximately 50 Public Access AEDs in our county. There are two at the high school and two at the grade school. There is one on the ferry and in every patrol car. There is one in the Rosburg Store. There are families in the outlying areas training to use the devices, for themselves and their neighbors.
“My vision is to have [Public Access AEDs] anywhere and everywhere in the county. If it saved one life it would be worth it,” said Wegdahl.
Next time you are in a public building, look around for one. Learn where they are.
The AED or Automated External Defibrillator is a portable device. It diagnoses the heart problem the patient is having and responds accordingly. It will literally talk you through the procedure.
“I’m just really impressed,” said Balch, in reference to the AED. “When you are panicky, it’s pretty idiot proof and self-explanatory.”
Gene Witham wants you to know this about our local volunteers for the fire department and EMS.
“They are the unsung heroes," he said. "They are the silent heroes.”
He is grateful for the people who left their jobs and their homes to come to his aid. He is also grateful for more time. His chest is very sore, he loses his voice now and again and once in a while, the tears come.
He’s not the only one who is grateful. “It doesn’t get any better than that, hearing he’s going to make it,” said Balch.
Witham is the second person to be saved in our county in the last year with an AED.
“The message here is to know your CPR. Not to know is the worst feeling in the world,” said Roberts.
A public CPR class will be offered in the spring. Watch The Eagle for details. Contact Carol Wegdahl at 430-8344 for more information about CPR.