Henry County Firefighter/Paramedic Brian Waits says he has a new appreciation for his co-workers, his faith and each moment of his time on earth, thanks to a recent episode that nearly cost him his life.
Waits, 38, has been with fire department five years, and currently works at Station 13 on Ga. Highway 20.
It was there, at approximately 12:30 p.m., on April 1, that he and several other firefighters were preparing to do a rapid-dress drill- putting on all their gear on in a prescribed time frame. The drill, however, quickly shifted into a frightening reality.
"I had put my mask on and turned my air on, and then I fell face-forward to the floor," Waits said.
Although some of the other firefighters present at the time, thought he was playing an April Fool's joke on them, they quickly discovered they were wrong.
Waits was told after he collapsed, a lieutenant called out his name several times. He did not respond.
"When [the lieutenant] rolled me over, he knew something was drastically wrong, and ripped off my mask," Waits explained. "I wasn't breathing, had no pulse - nothing."
Waits had gone into cardiac arrest, and was dead.
Firefighter/Paramedic Billy Petite was among the employees at Fire Station 13, the day Waits' life hung in the balance.
He said when his co-worker's body fell to the ground, the firefighters at the station acted on instinct to save him.
"We all just went into what we learned and what we knew," Petite said. "Everybody knew exactly what we needed to do. From that point, it went like clockwork."
Firefighters administered CPR, and used a cardiac monitor and defibrillator on Waits for approximately two minutes, before they were able to revive him. Within five minutes of Waits' fall to the ground, firefighters were on their way to the emergency room at Henry Medical Center.
Those five minutes, said Walton, seemed like "forever."
Nevertheless, he said the firefighters who worked on Waits, were able to put their emotions aside, and "got the job done."
At that same time, Waits' wife Joanna, 34, was driving home after picking up her son from pre-school. Along the way, she saw several Henry County emergency vehicles passing by her. A paramedic herself, she knew something was wrong.
Minutes later, she received a call on her cell phone from the fire department's North Battalion Chief, Barry Cooper, telling her what happened to her husband.
At first, she thought Cooper was perhaps calling to tell her Brian Waits, a diabetic, was having difficulties with his sugar level. She said she "never dreamed" the call was in regard to something more serious.
"[Cooper] asked me to pull over, and said 'I don't want to tell you this while you're driving,'" Joanna Waits explained. "I knew it wasn't good."
She said after the battalion chief relayed the news about her husband of four years, and she learned that firefighters had revived him, she dropped her child off at a neighbor's house and went to the hospital.
From there, she said, she could only think about one thing - hearing her husband's voice. She said she was relieved, shortly thereafter, to know Brian did not have to be intubated, and was able to communicate with her.
Joanna Waits said she appreciates the efforts of her husband's co-workers to save his life, and said she would have been grateful to them even if they had not been unable to revive him.
"Even if they weren't successful, they did ... what they were trained to do," she noted.
Although Waits does not remember anything that happened before he woke up in the emergency room, Fire Lt. Marty Miller recalls the first words the firefighter told him.
"[Waits] looked up at me with his eyes wide open and said, 'I ain't dead yet,'" Miller said.
Firefighter and emergency medical technician Craig Walton, said Waits' collapse at the station was a surprise.
"When you get in this job, you know it can happen, but you never expect it to happen," said Walton, a 20-year veteran. "You hope ... it doesn't happen again."
Walton said although firefighters regularly employ life-saving measures for local residents in the course of their duties, helping to bring a fellow firefighter back to life is something he will never forget.
"It's completely different when it's someone you live a third of your life with," he explained. "It's like working on one of your family members."
Waits remained at Henry Medical until April 3, and was then taken to Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, where he was later told he had a 99 percent blockage of his left anterior descending aorta.
Waits said that prior to his collapse, he had experienced "no signs" of any health problems, and had good results from his most recent physical provided by the county in October.
"I had no dizziness, and no shortness of breath," he said. "It was completely unexpected."
Waits explained that in the days since his brush with death, he has gained more motivation to make the most of his life.
"I died at the station, at that time ... for a reason," said the firefighter. "I believe it was a warning from God saying, 'Something's wrong with you, and you need to get this fixed.'"
Firefighter Petite said local residents should take note of what happened to Waits and learn to use machines such as defibrillators , and other life-saving devices.
"If this happened at Wal-Mart, and there happened to be someone there who was trained in CPR, ... the results may have been the same," Petite said. "Early CPR and defibrillation saves lives."
Brian Waits said he has thanked his fellow firefighters on several occasions for saving his life.
Waits said the collapse has influenced him to "savor every precious minute," and has renewed his commitment to his faith.
"I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior, but was I in church every Sunday? No," he said. "I promise you, I'll be in church every Sunday now."
Waits has yet to return to work, but hopes to do so at the beginning of May. As for other aspects of his future, the firefighter remains equally optimistic.
"Nobody knows what God's plans are, but I'm heading in the right direction," he said.
Republished with permission of The Henry Daily Herald.