College Students’ Unique Work Training Saves Life of 21-Year-Old in Cardiac Arrest
Rena Watts has no qualms about the people who saved her son’s life: people who were not trained medical professionals -- but rather a team of college students.
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, at 10:49 a.m., Walter “Josh” Watts, a 21-year-old senior majoring in psychology, clocked into his designated school work station at the Pfeiffer Science Building. Soon after, a teacher heard a loud crash. “I momentarily thought it sounded like a bookshelf fell on someone,” Associate Professor of Psychology Sheryl Haile said. “But then, I immediately thought, We don’t have a bookshelf.”
Haile walked into the hall, where she found Watts lying on the floor. Initially, “she thought he was playing a joke,” Watts’s mother said. “He’s a prankster—a big-time prankster.”
But Watts was not breathing, and he was turning blue. “I thought perhaps he was having a seizure,” Haile said. She called 911 at 11 a.m. and tried to soothe Watts, who was becoming increasingly delirious. Within three minutes, four student firefighters -- Gavin Harnstrom, Dakota Williams, Jessica Messer and Dalton Trussell—arrived at the scene. Harnstrom and Williams said they got there so quickly only because they had decided to skip class that morning, and they were nearby.
Upon the students’ arrival, “They stepped in right when my hands were on his chest,” Haile recalled thankfully.
“I’m trained for CPR and to use an AED (automatic external defibrillator), but the last time I did this was a year ago on a dummy,” she said. “So when I’m sitting there thinking, How am I going to do this, they stepped in. They were seamless.”
Their precision was vital, as Watts was not, in fact, having a seizure; he was in cardiac arrest, and his heart was in ventricular fibrillation. The firefighters quickly had to change their course of action and fetch an AED.
“CPR, alone, would not have saved his life,” Lori Vanderpool, the college’s registered nurse, said. “The AED shocked the heart to go back to a rhythm that’s manageable.”
Although Vanderpool was only about two minutes behind the firefighters with another AED, she said the situation was under control when she arrived -- a control the student firefighters said they maintained automatically.
“Walter was blue all over. When you’re expecting a seizure and you go in there and see that…it was a little overwhelming at the beginning,” Williams said.
“I had hung out with [Watts] the day before,” Trussell said. “He was perfectly fine, and when I saw him lying on the ground, it took me a second to kind of snap into that training that we had had.”
This training prepared the firefighters to conduct a rapid three-minute resuscitation, and Watts was taken by ambulance to nearby Skaggs Regional Medical Center less than 15 minutes after the firefighters received the initial 911 call.
After a week of recovery in two hospitals, Watts now is at home with his family in California, Mo., awaiting further tests. Doctors have not determined the cause of his cardiac arrest.
A UNIQUE WORK EXPERIENCE
Harnstrom, Williams, Trussell and Messer work at the fire department through the College of the Ozarks’ “Work Education Program”—a rigorous work study plan in which students must work 240 hours a semester at a real job. They complete 15-hour workweeks and two 40-hour workweeks each semester in lieu of paying tuition, according to the college’s dean of work education, Chris Larsen.
The school, known as “Hard Work U,” has about 100 different work stations, which encompass “pretty much every job you find in a small town”—jobs at slaughterhouses, jelly kitchens, laboratories and the fire department, among others.
“Employers love our students,” Larsen said, “because our students know how to work. They’re doing a real job, and they’re doing it while they’re taking classes. They know what it’s like to manage their time and have some responsibility.”
“I’m not from a very wealthy background,” Harnstrom said. “Not having to pay tuition was the biggest reason why I came here.”
A senior from Forsyth, Mo., and a video mass-communications major, Harnstrom has worked his way up to assuming the chief position at the fire department. Students who want to become part of the fire department train for a semester, in conjunction with working their official work station jobs, and then are voted into one of the nine department spots. All trainees and members receive repeated CPR training, and some members are certified EMTs.
Since the incident, both the fire department and the school said they increasingly have promoted the value of CPR—stressing the appeal of the American Heart Association’s new method, which doesn’t involve mouth-to-mouth contact and has proven to be more effective. “We’re looking into requiring this (CPR training) for certain job qualifications on campus,” Messer said.
“I hope people read this,” Williams added, “and become more medically aware that things can happen to younger people without any knowledge or prior conditions.”
REFLECTING ON A “MIRACLE”
Rena Watts said her son’s life scare “put everything into perfect perspective. At any moment, any one of us could speak the last words we speak to our family.”
She said she knows there’s no way to repay the student firefighters for their heroism -- but the four student heroes say they have already reaped their reward.
“I’ve been walking around with my head held high for the past week,” Harnstrom said, “knowing that all the training we put in and all the extra hours we put in have all been worth it. And we actually made a difference.”
That difference, Josh Watts said, made a “miracle.”
“If it hadn’t been for Dr. Haile being in her office just an extra minute or two … if it hadn’t been the fire department being a block away … I just think everything was orchestrated so divinely that there is absolutely no way to justify a reason as to what happened that saved my life.”