Heart attack experience makes O'Bier's life even more precious

By Lynn R. Parks

Randall O'Bier listens to conversation about the massive heart attack he suffered July 4th without flinching. He doesn't squirm when Seaford Volunteer Fire Department spokesman Ron Marvel describes the drill that county paramedics put into his shin bone to deliver medicines; he doesn't ask to be excused from the room when John Kimbler, also a SVFD volunteer, talks about giving him cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, pressing on his chest to keep his blood pumping, for more than five minutes.

He doesn't even blink when his brother, Seaford Fire Chief Mark O'Bier, describes him as having been clinically dead. "This doesn't bother me," says Randy. "I'm just glad to be here to hear them talking."

O'Bier, 62 and a 35-year member of the SVFD, suffered his heart attack while on duty in Dewey Beach. Nine volunteers with the department were in Dewey for the July 4th fireworks and following the celebration, while waiting for traffic to clear out so they could head back to Seaford, they had responded to a house fire on Clayton Street.

The fire had been caused by an errant firework that had landed in dry shrubbery, Mark said. By the time firefighters arrived, the fire was doused and the man who had lit the firework was under arrest.

"We had pulled a hose line out to make sure the fire was out and some of us were standing off to the side, deciding what to do next, when [firefighter] J.C. Willin hollered out to me. I turned around and saw somebody lying on the ground."

At first, he says, he thought that the man on the ground was the man who had lit the firework. Soon, "I realized it was a firefighter. Then I realized that it was one of mine. And then I realized that not only was it one of mine, but it was my brother.

"It's not easy looking at anyone lying on the ground and know that things are not looking very sporty," he adds. "It's intense. But when it's someone in your family, it's even more intense." 'Are you all right?'

Kimbler, an emergency medical technician, was standing next to Randy when he fell down. Normally, Kimbler says, he stays in the ambulance unless someone needs him. That night, he got out to check on the condition of the man who lit the firework and when he learned that he was all right, headed back toward the truck.

"But for some reason, I decided to go back to where the other volunteers were," he says. "I headed away from the ambulance and took my equipment box with me. Why I did that, I don't know."

At first, Kimbler thought that Randy had tripped over a hose. "I said, 'Are you all right?' and when I got no response, I turned him over," Kimbler says. "He was not breathing and when we checked, he had no pulse."

Immediately, Mark started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and Kimbler started regular chest pumps. "There was no conversation, but John knew where to be and what to do," Mark says. "He was going like a machine."

The call, "Firefighter down," went out over the emergency radio. "And things just started to take off," Mark says. "When that call goes out, it gets everyone's attention."

Among those who heard the announcement was Sussex County paramedic Wayne Jester, who had been patrolling the Rehoboth Beach Bandstand area on his bicycle. Headed back to the Rehoboth Beach Fire Hall, he saw fire trucks going out on their way to the Dewey Beach fire and decided to head there himself, just in case someone needed help. He heard the "firefighter down" call when he was about halfway between Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach, near Silver Lake, and "threw it in high gear," Mark says.

Jester was at Randy's side in about three minutes. He took over CPR duties from Mark.

Soon, six other county paramedics were on the scene. Randy was administered medicines through that hole drilled into his shin bone and was hooked up to an automatic electric chest compressor, relieving Kimbler from his duties. "I was happy for that, because I was getting kind of tired," Kimbler says.

Randy, still unconscious, was loaded onto a stretcher and taken to a Rehoboth Beach ambulance. The ambulance, with two police cars, one state and the other from Dewey Beach, leading the way and with a command vehicle carrying Mark bringing up the rear, headed north on Route 1. Traffic was still heavy – the town has estimated that there were 200,000 people in Rehoboth that night for the fireworks. But the small procession had no trouble making their way to Lewes and the Beebe Medical Center.

"Every intersection was covered with firemen, fire policemen and workers with the [Delaware Department of Transportation]," Mark says. "The police led us up Route 1 from Dewey to the hospital and we did not have to stop once. Cars were pulled over for us – it was like Moses parting the Red Sea."

Within 30 minutes of the "firefighter down" call, Randy was at the hospital. 'Don't kill me!'

While in the ambulance, Randy slightly recovered consciousness. He called out to paramedics who were with him, "Don't kill me!" Paramedics then administered a drug to sedate him, so he wouldn't struggle with them and injure himself.

Once at Beebe Medical Center, Randy was even further sedated. In addition, doctors chilled his body to protect his brain from damage. Research has shown that the induced hypothermia protects the brain from inflammation caused when oxygenated blood rushes back into it. The cold also slows the killing of brain cells that happens when the brain is deprived of oxygen.

And suddenly, the rush was over. "That was it," Mark says. "He was stabilized, his heart was beating, and doctors said that we would just have to wait and see."

Family members, including Randy's wife, Debbie, and their children, Jeff, Manassas, Va., and Kathi Adams, Seaford, gathered at the medical center. At one time, Mark says, there were seven cousins and their spouses there.

Early Tuesday morning, about 24 hours after inducing hypothermia, doctors started to warm Randy up. "They told us that it could take up to 48 hours for the cold and the sedatives to wear off," Mark says.

Doctors also told the family that tests had shown that Randy's heart was only functioning at 10 percent efficiency. "They said that they did not expect that he would walk out of the hospital," Mark says.

Forty-eight hours passed with no change. Seventy-two hours. Ninety-six hours and still nothing. Finally, on Saturday evening, nearly a week after the heart attack, a neurologist examined Randy and told the family that he saw little hope.

"He said that he thought that Randy had brain damage," Mark says. "He said that the CPR hadn't gotten enough oxygen to his brain. But he also said that another neurologist in his practice still thought that there was somebody home. And that they weren't going to give up hope." Finally, out of the coma

Ten minutes after the consultation with the neurologist, Randy's daughter walked into his room. She rubbed his arm and suddenly, Randy opened his eyes.

"He started going up like a rocket from there," Mark says. "He started moving his eyes to find voices and started responding to what was going on."

Randy says that he remembers first regaining consciousness and being aware that something was in his throat. "I thought, 'What in the world is going on here?'" he says. "And I thought that I would have to go get a pair of pliers to get out whatever was in my throat."

What was in his throat was the tube from the ventilator to which he was attached. And before he could act on his decision to go get a pair of pliers, he heard someone say, "Dad, you've had a heart attack. You're in Beebe Medical Center."

"I comprehended what was going on then," Randy says. "It all made sense now." Tests showed that Randy's heart was growing stronger, but needed bypass surgery. The surgery was July 22, 18 days after his heart attack, and he came home to Reliance four days later, on Monday, July 26.

"I walked out of the hospital," something that doctors had predicted he would not do, Randy says. "I walked as far as they would let me." Many factors in his favor

Many factors came together to allow Randy to survive his heart attack. He had the heart attack while on duty and while emergency medical technicians were on the scene and paramedics just a few minutes away.

"There could not have been a better time, better place or better situation," says SVFD spokesman Marvel. Even a few minutes delay in getting attention could have meant organ damage.

Paramedic Jester and his partner, without being summoned there, had already started toward Dewey Beach when Randy took ill. When the "firefighter down" call came in, they were just a few minutes away.

Everyone involved in Randy's care did exactly what they were supposed to do, says Mark. "It worked like clockwork," he adds. "It was amazing."

And the trip from Dewey to Beebe, thanks to volunteers and state and county workers who directed traffic at intersections, was as smooth as it could be.

On Aug. 4, Randy, Mark and several other Seaford volunteer firefighters went to the Rehoboth Beach Fire Hall to thank members there as well as Sussex County paramedics for everything that they did. "We bought them pizza and subs, and they got to see first-hand the effects of their work," Mark says. "They needed that. They do this kind of thing day in and day out and often, there's not a good result. But here's Randy, who's getting better every day. They were happy to see him."

In addition to all the help he got, Mark credits his brother's "will and determination" in aiding in his recovery. Also, "there were lots of people behind him, praying for him," Mark adds. "There were a lot of factors in his favor that you can't put down on paper or see on a computer screen."

As for Randy, he says that he feels great. He takes medication and is facing another possible procedure, to implant an internal defibrillator in case of another heart attack. But he has resumed driving and on Saturday, went into his shop, Reliance Machine Works, for a few hours to repair some combine parts. He hopes to get back to working full-time and soon to be able to respond to calls from the SVFD.

"Every day I wake up and think, 'Boy, it doesn't matter what happens today, it will be a good day,'" he says. "I've always been happy to be alive. But now it really means something."

Randy says that he is very grateful to the many people who helped him, including paramedics, volunteers with the Rehoboth Beach Fire Company and employees at Beebe Medical Center. And he believes that over time, he will understand why his life was spared.

"I am just waiting to see why I was left here," he says. "There is some reason that the Lord wants me here and I'm kind of waiting to see what it is."

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