Thursday, December 10, 2009

Garver Honors Four for Saving the Life of a Fifth at NASA Langley


Four men stood in an upstairs conference room Wednesday, each getting a medal from Lori Garver, NASA's deputy administrator.

A fifth told the gathering in the headquarters building at NASA's Langley Research Center that he had already gotten his award.

"Thanks guys," said Paul Roberts, 50, looking at his NASA Engineering and Safety co-workers, "for giving me back my life."

Garver gave Exceptional Bravery Medals to Jeff Stewart and Perry Wagner of Goddard Space Flight Center, Chip McCann of Johnson Space Center and Mike Kirsch, a Langley engineer and lead of the Composite Crew Module team.

She reminded everyone that NASA's products were produced by NASA's people.

"I am just so thrilled that you all were there," she told the foursome getting the awards.

"There" was a November 4 meeting in Langley's Building 1256, where the team was getting ready for a module test.

"We were sort of sitting back, looking at data, and suddenly he had his head back and it sounded like he was snoring," Wagner remembered of Roberts. "We were sort of kidding him that it looked like the meeting was boring him, but he didn't respond."

Stewart shook Roberts, and finding no response, laid him on the floor.

Wagner, McCann and Stewart immediately began administering CPR, as best they could remember how.

"I think I'd had the training most recently," McCann said, "and that was about six years ago."

Said Wagner: "I remember, like all of us, that we breathed on a mannequin in grade school. That was the last time."

Stewart was more specific. "About 34 years ago, when I was in the Boy Scouts."

But each took a role: Stewart working on Roberts' chest, Wagner doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when Roberts began to turn blue and McCann monitoring Roberts for a pulse rate.

"As soon as we put him down and tried to find a pulse on his wrist -- and actually I thought I felt a faint pulse there -- Jeff put his hand on Paul's chest and said 'I don't feel his heart beating here,' " McCann said. "By then, I didn't feel anything on his wrist, and that was the time Jeff started doing the compression."

The years since CPR training fostered uncertainty.

"It was a struggle for all of us," said McCann. "None of us were too sure what we were supposed to be doing. We were trying to do the basics."

Kirsch was organizing everyone else, creating an impromptu emergency center, calling 911, getting furniture out of the way for the arrival of paramedics and trying to reach NESC Director Ralph Roe by Instant Messenger to find the number of Roberts' wife, Ellen.

Stewart remembered an e-mail from his father-in-law a week earlier advising that the old "five compressions" method of CPR had been superseded by a recommended "30 compressions."

Wagner asked Stewart whether mouth-to-mouth was required, and finally Stewart said OK. "It's better to do it than not to do it," Wagner said. "I think I remember his color getting better."

Said Stewart: "Two to three minutes after we started to work on him, it looked like he was trying to come around. It kind of gave us impetus to keep going. It was, 'Wow, he's trying. We've got to keep going.'

"I had been taught that you had to press hard, almost to break his ribs, but I didn't want to break his ribs. That was why our communication was so important. As long as I got feedback from Chip that we were giving enough blood to him, I could keep going the way we were."

Within 7-10 minutes, Emergency Medical Treatment personnel came in to take over.

First, they told Stewart to continue chest compression. "But they told him to do it faster and harder," McCann said. "The first thing they said was 'Are you tired? Can you keep going?' "

Then the paramedics used a defibrillator to shock Roberts' heart.

"By the way, that wasn't much fun," said Roberts, laughing on Wednesday.

But one shock brought him back.

"Then Paul started talking," Stewart said. "He said 'Why am I on the floor? What happened?' "

Stewart filled him in on the ambulance ride to a local hospital, where a pacemaker was installed. The verdict was that Roberts had not had a heart attack, but that his electrical system had shut down. Also that without the CPR by his co-workers, Roberts probably would have died.

"Let me give you an idea of how important what these guys did was," Roberts said. "When I was in the hospital, I looked up some statistics on the Internet. When you go into sudden cardiac arrest and you have somebody in the room who sees you go down, the percentages are about 4-7 percent that you survive.

"About 30 percent of that 4-7 percent have almost no mental degradation. I think I'm in that 30 percent."

He laughed with everyone around him.

Lesa Roe, Langley's center director, and her Goddard and Johnson counterparts, Rob Strain and Mike Coats, echoed Garver's sentiments.

For Roberts, though, it was all personal.

"Guys, thanks for giving me back my family," he said.

Sitting at a table nearby, wife Ellen nodded her thanks, on behalf of their daughters, Katherine, Carolyn and Elizabeth.

And all of the men who received awards made early New Year's resolutions.

"CPR training is on my list," Kirsch said.

Roberts' list, too.


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