Saving a Life Together

The experience of one couple vacationing on Hilton Head Island illustrates the gravity of responding appropriately to cardiac arrest

You need to get him on the floor. Use the bedsheets and drag him on to the floor. I’m gonna count with you. 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8. 

Leslie Pitt still remembers the early morning hours of that fateful day in May 2016 as if it were yesterday.

Roused from her sleep by a strange, croaking rasp coming from her husband, Graham, she still feels acutely every detail, from the distinctive sounds and smells to the thoughts and emotions racing through her mind.

The couple was in a condo on Hilton Head Island on vacation, and Graham was in cardiac arrest. 

“I didn't even know what it was. I woke up to this sound and I found him purple and not breathing,” she clearly recalls.

Pitt, who works as a family and marriage therapist in Davidson, NC, now describes her memories in terms of a “neural net,” a network of responses that form as the brain processes trauma.

“I want people to understand that, when you’re the one with the person who is experiencing a cardiac arrest, a neural net will be formed in that moment,” she explains. “Part of that net is composed of what you saw, what you heard, what you smelled—any of your responses coming from your senses. And then it’s what you were feeling. I was feeling panic, I was feeling terror. It's what you are thinking, and I'm thinking my husband is dead. I'm thinking I can't help him. Another element is what's happening in your body. You have a huge adrenaline surge and your heart is just beating out of your chest. It's the heat, your muscles are tightening, you're not thinking clearly—the whole physiological response you're having to the trauma.”

Even now, Pitt says, a particular sound or smell can take her right back into that condo where she re-lives the trauma again and again.

Fortunately, the memory is not entirely a bad one, thanks to Hilton Head Fire & Rescue and the 9-1-1 dispatcher who ended up saving her husband’s life. Pitt remains incredibly thankful that she called 9-1-1- almost immediately, and that the dispatcher astutely recognized what needed to be done to keep Graham’s heart beating.

“I was giving him [CPR] compressions on the bed, and the bed was absorbing [the pressure],” she remembers. “Had I continued to do that, our result would not be what it is.”

You can hear the operator, Earnestine Reed, on the publicly released recording of the call, directing Pitt calmly and evenly despite the tenseness of the situation. 

“You need to get him on the floor,” she repeats, even as Pitt protests that she can’t lift her husband up from the bed. “Use the bed sheets and drag him onto the floor.”

Nearly eight minutes passed from the initiation of the 9-1-1 call to the arrival of EMS, practically an eternity for a single person giving CPR to another. Most experts suggest rotating off with another person every two minutes, given how physically demanding the act is and that effectiveness tends to fall off after the first few minutes of compressions. 

Pitt remembers how discouraged she felt, but also Reed’s voice encouraging her on.

“You can do it. You will do it,” the dispatcher says over the phone. “I’m gonna count with you. 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8.”

Pitt kept going until Hilton Head EMS arrived and rapidly took over for her. 

“There was just this stream of what felt like a military special forces team coming into my little bedroom of the rented condo,” she recalls. It should have felt overwhelming, but Pitt says the understanding and grace of Hilton Head Fire & Rescue made a huge difference in her experience.

“They didn’t try and shoo me out of the room. They allowed me to be present and weren’t trying to micro-manage me. And I think, regardless of the outcome, it was important that I was allowed to be present,” she confesses. While the team went to work using a defibrillator to bring her husband back to life, Pitt was able to stay with him, touching his feet. And she prayed.

“It was really powerful for me, that I was allowed to be a wife in that situation, even as the professionals were doing their work,” she says gratefully. “That was pretty significant to me.”

She credits Battalion Chief Tom Bouthillet for the sensitive treatment, noting how he walked through the EKG materials with them and later arranged for her and Graham to meet the dispatcher who guided her through those critical moments of CPR.

“It helped me understand and make sense of what happened. It gave meaning to the trauma,” she says now. “The intensity of the trauma I feel has dissipated so much based on the work he did.”

Leslie and Graham have since appeared on behalf of Hilton Head Fire & Rescue to tell the story of their experience, appearing most recently at SCHA’s 11th Annual Heart & Stroke Care Alliance Education Forum. They continue to live happily in Davidson, North Carolina.