by Catherine Godbey
Volunteer firefighters recall saving teen’s life after his heart stopped; now they consider each other family.
PRICEVILLE — It was a lazy spring afternoon when the radio crackled to life.
“Difficulty breathing at 331 Wildwood Way.”
Half a mile away, Todd Mehl rushed to his truck. Minutes later, the volunteer firefighter arrived on the scene.
In the bathroom, 18-year-old James Stuart laid, unmoving. Mehl checked his pulse and felt a faint beat.
“Something told me to check it again. The second time I didn’t feel anything,” Mehl said.The trained Emergency Medical Technician sounded the “full arrest” alert and initiated CPR.
“I knew I had to keep it going until the cavalry arrived,” Mehl said. “In my head, it felt like an eternity. In reality, it was probably two minutes.”
At a family barbecue, Kevin Worley heard Mehl’s call. At the Priceville Fire Department, Worley and Steve Wilson picked up a defibrillator. If needed, the machine, hopefully, could shock Stuart’s heart back to life.
At the house, Worley and Wilson found Mehl leaning over Stuart, pumping his chest. There was still no breath, no pulse, no life. The Brewer High School student who loved basketball, football and trains was turning blue. After each round of CPR, Mehl stopped and waited. Nothing.
With each passing minute the odds for survival faded. According to statistics, only 2 percent of patients in full arrest survive. They needed to get Stuart’s heart beating immediately.
“You can’t think about it. You have to go on instincts,” Wilson said. “But when a child is involved, a little more goes into it. We just had to do what we were trained to do.”
Worley and Wilson unzipped the defibrillator, tore open the pads, placed them on Stuart’s chest and prepared to administer a shock after the sixth round of CPR.
Then everything stopped as Mehl checked for a pulse. There it was, a faint beat. And then, the shallow breathing.
“It was amazing to see his color come back and see him pink up. It was an awesome thing,” said Worley.
“That is exactly what it is, awesome,” Wilson said.
“You can do this for a number of years and never experience that,” said Wilson, who also serves as the department’s lay chaplain.
“There are no words to describe it. The only thing I can relate it to is seeing your children born. There is nothing like it,” Mehl added.
The ambulance arrived minutes later and whisked Stuart to Huntsville Hospital where he was airlifted to Birmingham.
Left behind were Mehl, Worley and Wilson. They repacked their bags, zipped up the defibrillator and went back to their lives, not knowing if Stuart would survive.
“We always want to find out what happens to the patients. The bad thing is we can’t because of HIPPA laws and privacy issues,” Wilson said.
But they needed to know.
Mehl returned to the Stuart home several days later and knocked on the door. Nancy Stuart answered. James, she said, had survived.
That was more than a year ago.
“I’m doing great. The doctor says, well, I’m perfect,” said James Stuart.
Sitting with Mehl, Worley and Wilson at the fire station on Bethel Road, Stuart proudly wore a Priceville Firefighter shirt. After all, he is an honorary member.
“I don’t remember anything about that night. The first thing I remember is waking up in Birmingham the next day,” Stuart said.
On April 11, Stuart celebrated his 19th birthday. He is working toward his GED and dreams of becoming a railroad engineer. Nancy Stuart said a heart condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome — a congenital condition that occurs when parts of the left side of the heart do not develop completely — caused James to have a seizure and his heart to stop beating.
“Together, (the firefighters) worked to save my son’s life. Using only hands-on CPR, they got his heart back beating,” Nancy Stuart said. “The three heroes I met on April 25, 2010 are, thankfully, a part of our family now. James has two birthdays due to these wonderful men.”
They shy away from the term hero. They were just doing what they trained to do.
‘We are not heroes’
“We are not heroes,” Mehl said. “Heroes die in the line of duty.”
“I just thank God that we were given the opportunity to use what we knew to help somebody,” Worley said.
But to Nancy Stuart, there is no other word to describe Mehl, Worley and Wilson. They are heroes.
“What these men did was amazing. I will never be able to thank them enough,” she said.
Every few months, the volunteer firefighters meet up with the Stuarts. According to Nancy Stuart, they are all one family now.
“Every time I see him it is amazing. The first time I saw him it brought tears to my eyes,” said Worley.
Mehl, Worley and Wilson represent three of the 40 volunteer firemen who serve Priceville, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Last year, they responded to more than 800 calls. A majority of calls come in the middle of the night.
While the community sleeps, they are removing trees from the roads, extricating individuals from cars and responding to fires.
“These are amazing men,” said Wilson, who works during the day at International Paper. “They are a group of people who get up in the middle of the night to protect others. I am lucky to be associated with them.”
Worley spends his days at 3M, and Mehl works at Nucor.
They are volunteer firefighters. They do not get paid. They do it to serve the community.
“We are blessed to have this opportunity to give back and serve and do for others,” Wilson said.