Brian Maxwell was nearing the finish line when he saw what he thought was a woman tripping and falling down.
“I went over to help her up, but when I rolled her over she had that look of death on her,” he said.
Luckily for Rita Jones, Maxwell also happened to be a paramedic firefighter. Unable to find a pulse, he immediately began fast and deep compressions. He shouted to a friend to call 911 and get help from the medic tent.
Moments later, Maxwell used an AED provided by the local fire crew, handing Jones off to the EMS crew to take to the hospital, and finished the race in Birmingham, Alabama.
As a lieutenant paramedic firefighter, Maxwell has done CPR “hundreds of times” over his 26-year career. A CPR instructor, he had used the lifesaving skill as a bystander two times. Both resulted in the patient surviving.
“It’s such a great feeling because it’s rare when that happens,” he said.
About 90 percent of the more than 350,000 people in the U.S. who experience out-of-hospital cardiac arrests die. But CPR, especially when performed immediately, can double or triple a cardiac arrest victim’s chance of survival.
Dwight Wren, Jr., a paramedic firefighter who responded to the Jones call that October in 2015, said even after 27 years on the job, it still amazes him when someone is resuscitated using CPR.
“It’s just very humbling,” Wren said. “This is just our job and we do it, but it’s an awesome feeling because it doesn’t happen that often.”
Wren, who also teaches CPR to high school students, said having bystanders prepared to use the lifesaving skill is crucial.
“If someone can start CPR or use an AED before we get there, that’s what saves lives,” he said.
At the hospital, Jones, who was 53 at the time, was put in a medically-induced coma to recover, and given an implantable defibrillator to shock her heart back into rhythm if it goes into cardiac arrest again. She also got a surprising diagnosis: congestive heart failure.
“I thought I was perfectly healthy,” she said. “The doctor told me my heart just went haywire.”
Although Jones never had any indication of trouble with her heart health, she had a family history of heart disease that increased her own risks. Her mother had an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation, or AFib, and one of her brothers required bypass surgery.
Jones underwent cardiac rehab and made additional changes to the family’s diet.
Her daughter, Chamekia Jones said the experience has been life-changing for the entire family, which overhauled its diet further to eliminate added sodium and rich sauces. They’ve swapped pork and beef for more skinless poultry and fish.
“We thought we were eating healthy, but there was more we could do,” she said.
Jones says she always knew CPR could save lives, but although she had undergone training, she often doubted she would have the courage to act. She said she now would find a way.
“I would definitely act to save someone,” Jones said. “I can’t imagine the happiness you would feel if you could save a life. It would be such a great gift to give.”
Chamekia Jones said she also plans to undergo CPR training, inspired by the paramedic who saved her mother.
“I’ve always known it was important, but am so grateful that there were people there to do it,” Chamekia Jones said.
Today, Jones continues to exercise, albeit using a heart monitor and at a lower intensity because she struggles with shortness of breath.
Jones said she was too fearful to return to the Birmingham, Alabama, Susan G. Komen race in 2016, but she’s already recruited her daughter and future son-in-law, along with other friends and family to participate in the Birmingham Heart Walk this month.