As Panic Sets In: Nebraska Airman saved following heart attack

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jamie Titus
  • 155th Air Refueling Wing, Nebraska Air National Guard
“Holy crap, I killed our friend.”

Guilt set in Capt. John Kupka’s thoughts when he and four other Airman turned over Tech. Sgt. Michael Alvarez, who was lying face down and unresponsive on a basketball court.

The commander of the 155th Logistics Readiness Squadron’s distribution flight, Kupka felt personally responsible for persuading Alvarez, a logistics planner with the 155th LRS, to play basketball with five other members of the Nebraska Air National Guard on Jan. 20, 2018, at the Spirit of ’76 Armory in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Alvarez, 45, had just started working out again after having foot surgery in November and decided playing basketball with his co-workers would be a good workout. That day he played a couple games of pick-up basketball with Kupka, Master Sgt. Jeremey Dean, Staff Sgt. Dan Schieffer, Staff Sgt. Matthew Riley, and Senior Airman Jonathan Sobetski.

Alvarez then told the others he was going to take a break to catch his breath and rest. As the other players reached the other side of the court and turned around, they saw Alvarez face down, laying in the middle of the court.

“We honestly thought he was messing around,” said Kupka, adding that Alvarez was known for his pranks and sense of humor. “We rolled him over; he definitely wasn’t messing around. At that point, panic sets in. What do we do? What actions do we take from here?”

Realizing Alvarez wasn’t breathing, they immediately dialed 911.

Schieffer, an aircraft sortie generating crew chief with the 155th Maintenance Group, was the first to administer CPR. He and the others drew on the training they had received many times in the National Guard.

“We were talking with the operator and she asked if anyone knew CPR,” said Schieffer. “Everybody kind of freezes up in the heat of the moment like, ‘who’s the expert here?’ So I remembered how to do CPR and I immediately started.”

“I felt the first ribs cracking and popping, like ‘ok, well we started now, there ain’t no stopping,’” he added.

Although it seemed like hours, Alvarez was out for 20 minutes.

“Time really kind of stopped there,” said Kupka. “It really slows down.”

Each of the other members took turns giving Alvarez compressions while others spoke on the phone with the 911 operator.

“(It was) definitely a scary situation starting out,” said Schieffer. “You never want to hurt a friend or anything like that. You’re just hoping that one last second like ‘hey, he’s going to be alright’ but obviously he was not.”

While the Airmen continued CPR, Master Sgt. Ronald Schroeder with the Nebraska Army National Guard medical detachment, came into the gym and immediately started helping the others. Schroeder, a 20-year veteran medic, is an automated external defibrillator (AED) and CPR instructor. An AED is a device that can check the heart rhythm of a patient and attempt to restore it by sending an electric shock.

“I ran over there, saw they had an AED sitting right next to the patient, so I asked them why they hadn’t put that on yet and they said the dispatcher told them not to,” said Schroeder. “So I put it on his chest and right away it said to shock him, and that’s about the time that Lincoln Fire and Rescue showed up. So I shocked him once and then Lincoln Fire took over.”

Schroeder credited the Airmen for taking the actions they did to save Alvarez’ life.

“The number one thing was they started doing something,” said Schroeder. “They called 911. They got that process going. Those guys started doing chest compressions, so they kept the blood flowing. We started shocking him as soon as we could; Lincoln Fire took over and they did a great job.”

After two more shocks from the AED, they were able to stabilize Alvarez.

Kupka said the AED was very helpful and was pretty easy to use, since it tells the exact steps of how to use it and when to shock the patient if needed. Looking back, he said anyone who comes across a similar situation should immediately locate the AED and get it on the patient.

Later, Alvarez said he knows that his friends’ actions made a critical difference.

“According to what the doctors said, I had died on the basketball court; I went into cardiac arrest,” said Alvarez.

Although the doctors are unsure, they think a piece of plaque broke off from the wall of one of Alvarez’ arteries, causing blockage. Alvarez’s doctor told him the heart attack caused him to have 100 percent blockage, but because he was given CPR, the blockage was brought down to 99 percent and saved his heart from permanent damage.

“The guys that saved me, that’s just unbelievable, that they reacted that quickly and just did what they did,” said Alvarez. “I owe my life.”

Alvarez’s body temperature was brought down and he was placed into a medical-induced coma to protect his brain from being damaged.

While Alvarez was being transported to the hospital, Capt. Doug Carlson, government relations officer at the Nebraska National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters and a personal friend of Alvarez, was notified about the incident and immediately called Alvarez’s wife, Lisa.

“My initial reaction was to go straight into military mode,” said Carlson. “All business and no time for emotions. I knew that could come later, and I had to just keep focusing on getting his wife and kids to the hospital.”

Carlson stayed with Alvarez’s family and was at the hospital every day.

“He needed me in that moment, so I was there,” said Carlson. “He would have done the same for me without hesitation.”

Alvarez said he was thankful for what Carlson did for him during that time.

“He wasn’t there during the physical stuff like those guys did, but he was there on the mental side and getting my family and helping them out,” said Alvarez. “He’s a good guy and I’m glad he’s in my life, ‘cause that helped quite a bit, that left less stress for me. That’s the key thing, keeping the stress level down.”

Looking back, everyone who helped Alvarez that day are thankful they had additional training like self-aid buddy care and CPR classes to fall back on.

Senior Airman Michael Vantine, an installation personnel readiness NCO with the 155th Force Support Squadron, said the 155th Civil Engineer Squadron’s fire department offers CPR classes every regularly scheduled drill for members of the Nebraska National Guard and every day for full-time members or civilians who would like to be trained on CPR. As a civilian, Vantine is a firefighter for the Nebraska Air National Guard Fire Department as well as a CPR instructor.

“The importance of it is to save somebody’s life,” said Vantine. “I mean if someone goes down, collapses in front of you like your parents or some family member goes down, if you can help them because of that training, the better off they’re going to be, the more chances you’re going to be able to save their life.”

Vantine said taking the time to pay attention in these classes is worth it since an accident or life-threatening situation can happen at any time or anywhere with little or no notice.

“You might think you know it, but when the time comes to actually do it, that’s not the time to be like, ‘um I don’t really quite remember like I thought I did,’” said Vantine. “If I can have the chance to save somebody’s life because of what I know, I feel like that’s important.”

Kupka said now he takes the time to get to know his Airmen and how to contact their families in the event of an emergency.

“Supervisors should know information about their Airmen’s personal life,” said Kupka. “So when Mike collapsed, I had never met his wife, formerly in passing, but not close enough to know how to get a hold of her or any of that kind of stuff.”

This incident also caused many people to reflect on who they are surrounded by in their own lives.

“It made me realize how important the people in my support system are,” said Carlson. “And, just like that, they can be gone.”

Since his heart attack, Alvarez has fully recovered and is back at work. Although his diet and lifestyle have changed, his fun personality is the same. He said the heart attack also changed his perspective on life.

“The 155th, the support that they gave to me and my family, especially to my wife was unbelievable, it was so instrumental and was healing for me and my wife,” said Alvarez.

He added, “Things look differently now, the sunsets look better, I try to make my relationship with my wife and my kids more meaningful now than before.”