Lying on the side of Grange Hall Road on the morning of May 18, Severn Thomas died.
The 51-year-old Philomath resident had fallen off of his bike and into a ditch. A ventricular fibrillation episode stopped his heart. The blood quit flowing to his brain. His pulse was gone. It’s known as sudden cardiac death.
But his friend, Kurt Hill, was on the ride with him and had been trained in CPR. He knew exactly what to do. After making a call to 911, he started chest compressions to get Thomas’s blood flowing. There was a chance, albeit slim, that his friend would make it out of the situation alive. And even if he did, there could be brain damage.
“When you have sudden cardiac arrest or sudden cardiac death, there’s a small chance — one out of 10 that you’ll survive,” Thomas said.
Yes, that’s a quote from Thomas himself. He did survive and without impairment. He shared his story recently with the Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce during its monthly luncheon. The talk drove home an important point that everyone needs to learn how to perform CPR.
“Fighting through that, all my family fighting through that, the overwhelming support of this community, it’s made me an advocate for why this is so important,” Thomas said. “I never thought about it before, even though I’ve been CPR-trained and I was a wilderness EMT at one point. We never thought it would happen to us.”
The message? Being trained in CPR really can make a difference.
“It doesn’t always happen, it’s not always successful but it’s worth a shot,” Thomas said. “If it’s your wife or your child or your husband or your brother or anybody you know, you would cling to every little sliver of hope that there is and that’s what people did.”
Thomas said that maybe it’s a miracle he made it through alive and with no brain damage. Or, maybe it comes down to a lucky draw on the statistics.
“I’m the one out of a hundred, I’m the lucky guy that made it through with no impairment,” he said. “But I owe it to the other 99 who lost family members to go out and talk about this. … You may end up saving somebody’s life.”
Thomas and Hill met about 17 years ago, ironically, at a wilderness EMT course in Colorado.
“We spent a month up in the mountains doing scenarios out in subzero temperatures and basically learning how to save people in all kinds of situations,” Thomas said.
The two were roommates for the course and they hit it off and became friends. Over the years, they stayed in touch and amazingly, both ended up living in the same vicinity — Hill in Corvallis with Thomas in Philomath.
The friends are both hardcore cyclists. A couple of years ago, they did a 206-mile ride from Seattle to Portland in 11 hours. They’ve also done a couple of 24-hour races — which is when they ride 24 hours straight to see how far they can go.
“Last summer, we did a 10-day self-supported trip around Oregon, just the two of us, and we packed up our bikes and we rode over McKenzie Pass and rode down to Smith Rock and down to Crater Lake and the Cascade Lakes byway and it was a fantastic experience,” Thomas said.
Typically, the pair can be seen on weekends doing 60 or 70 miles around the immediate vicinity — perhaps a ride up to Buena Vista and take the ferry before coming back down through Albany. Or, maybe they’ll ride out to Triangle Lake or over to the coast.
During the week, they’ll also often do short rides, which are 25 to 30 miles.
“On a Friday morning, we like to go ride out of town and tour around south of town — Bellfountain and Decker Road and things like that and then come back and we’ll stop at the Hiatt Farm Bakery,” Thomas said.
On the morning of Friday, May 18, Thomas and Hill planned to bike down Alsea Highway and pick up Decker Road. While headed west out of town, they came upon a slow train and decided to backtrack and get to Alsea Highway via Grange Hall Road.
“Somewhere along Grange Hall Road, I started complaining that I didn’t feel well,” Thomas said.
Thomas had previous experiences with atrial fibrillation — a common heart rhythm condition.
“It’s uncomfortable but it’s not life-threatening and I have ridden through it before, so I wasn’t typically worried,” Thomas said. “We’d just stop and I’d rest a little bit.”
Hill, who had been through A-fib episodes with Thomas on past rides, started to look for a place to stop.
“Next thing he knows, I had plowed my bike off the road into a ditch, into a bunch of poison oak, and collapsed,” Thomas said.
Thomas had experienced V-fib.
“Somehow, my heart rhythm degraded into a life-threatening condition where the bottom chambers of the heart are quivering wildly,” Thomas said. “No blood’s getting to your brain and that’s when you experience the sudden cardiac death. For me, it wasn’t a heart attack … it was the electrical signals in my heart not working properly.”
When it first happened, Hill thought his friend had just crashed. When he realized what was going on, the CPR training took over.
“It was literally, I go over, I check on Severn, he is not responsive at all,” Hill recalled. “I have done this so many times in my training so it’s like, ‘OK, he’s not responsive. I’ve got to go call 911.' … Once I started doing the CPR, that’s another part. I didn’t have to think about, ‘OK, how do I do CPR?’ I just did it … you don’t have to think about it; that training takes over automatically and you do it.”
An unidentified woman stopped to offer her help and Hill made the call. Philomath Fire & Rescue’s call logs show the response at 8:55 a.m.
Thomas shared an audio recording of Hill’s 911 call with the audience. A chilling moment during the call is when Hill tells the operator that there was no pulse and his friend was not breathing.
Chest compressions followed and they counted together.
“As you can listen, the thing with doing CPR is you can know it, you can understand the mechanics of it but when it’s your best friend that’s out there and this is happening to them, it’s a whole another situation,” Hill said. "You can probably tell I was not the most calm … there was not a lot of thinking going on.”
And that’s one of the points that Hill wanted to make. For those who are trained in CPR, there’s no stopping to think about what needs to be done. Instead, you just spring into action to try to help someone.
For the first time in the 30-plus years since he took his first course, Hill used CPR to save someone.
As both Hill and Thomas pointed out, one of the big things with performing CPR on someone in cardiac arrest is to pump blood so it can reach the brain.
“If they don’t get that blood flow to the brain, there can be brain damage and Severn doesn’t need any more of that,” Hill kidded, drawing laughs from the audience.
Thomas knows that he wouldn’t be alive today if not for his friend.
“That’s really the only reason I’m here right now is because I was with Kurt on a bike ride,” he said. “If I had been home in the shower or if I had been somewhere with somebody who didn’t know what to do, I’d be dead. He kept blood flowing, he kept oxygen to my brain long enough until the EMTs could get there with an AED and shock me and put me back into a sinus rhythm.”
That was only the beginning of the journey for Thomas.
Doctors had told Thomas’s wife that there could be maybe a 1 or 2 percent chance that he’s going to survive without any mental impairment.
“I actually wear on my life alert badge now that says ‘1.6 percent’ and that reminds me how slim my chance was of making it out of that,” Thomas said.
Road to recovery
Doctors induced a coma at the hospital in an attempt to preserve brain function. He remained in that state for four days.
“At that point, people don’t know if I was going to come out as the same person or if I was going to have a vastly different personality or impaired mentally,” Thomas said.
“We had just phenomenal care there at Samaritan and the critical decisions that doctors and nurses and people made there along with the EMTs and Kurt and the fire people — there were dozens of people in this community that were fighting for my life.”
Thomas woke up from the coma and was bewildered at first about what had happened. One of his first thoughts was how he didn’t want to miss two graduations — his 5-year-old from kindergarten and his 18-year-old from high school.
“There were times that my wife would sit there next to my bed, holding my hand, talking to me and they were telling her, ‘he doesn’t have any brain function,’” Thomas said. "And she swears she saw a tear roll down my cheek when he said something to me and I squeezed her hand. And so she still had hope.”
For about a month, Thomas had a wearable AED vest before he received an internal cardiac defibrillator. A battery-powered device placed under the skin, the ICD connects to the heart with very thin wires. If it detects an abnormal heart rhythm, the device will deliver an electric shock to restore a normal heartbeat.
With his “life preserver” now implanted, Thomas is back on the bike.
“I’ve been encouraged by my doctor to go live a normal life, to not let it hold me back and just keep cycling and hiking and doing everything I wanted to do,” Thomas said.
A scuba diving trip with his daughter might even be on the agenda.
“It’s psychological, what people experience when they have this kind of thing because medical science doesn’t really completely understand what causes sudden cardiac arrest,” Thomas said. “You don’t know if it’s going to happen. It shouldn’t have happened to me; I was really not high risk at all.”
Thomas now has two birthdays to celebrate.
“May 18 is now my second birthday,” he said. “There’s a whole community of people online, cardiac arrest survivors and all of us feel pretty grateful that we’re the couple percent that survived. … Everybody celebrates that second birthday — this is my second chance, new life.”
Thomas remembers the first time that he listened to the 911 call.
“It really brought it all close to home for me to really understand,” Thomas said. “I literally was gone. I didn’t experience any of the shock and the pain and the loss because I was out. It made me think immediately of my family and how much they had to go through.”
Marcia Gilson, a volunteer for the Philomath Police Department and former employee at Philomath Fire & Rescue, has taught CPR for around 30 years.
“Unfortunately, there’s about 350,000 Americans a year that experience sudden cardiac arrest,” Gilson told the chamber audience. “Eighty-eight percent of that happens in the home."
Gilson hopes the Thomas and Hill experience will prompt people to go through CPR training. She mentioned King County, Washington — which includes Seattle — as a model location for those trained to help. Through CPR training and AED availability in public locations, King County has a 25 percent survival rate for bystander CPR.
“We don’t expect Philomath to compete with King County but we hope people will take an interest and get trained in it,” Gilson said.
Hill urges others to get the training.
“Do it every year,” he said. “Hope you’ll never have to use it, but you could save someone’s life.”
Gilson said bystander CPR basically involves chest compressions.
“It used to think that you had to do breaths and you had to do compressions,” she said. “If you’re in town and you have a good less than 10 minutes before the ambulance would get there, doing chest compressions is good for that person and hopefully they’ll survive. And especially if you put the AED on them and it shocks them.”
On Father’s Day, Thomas and his wife and young son went to the coast. They played on the beach, splashed in the waves, enjoyed some seafood and stopped for ice cream on the way home.
“When I was putting him to bed that night after I had read him a couple of books and he was getting ready to go to sleep, he was laying there next to me and all of a sudden, he turned around and said, ‘Dad, that was the best Father’s Day ever.'
“And I squeezed him as hard as I could and said, ‘yep, that was. That was the best ever.’”