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'Miracle': Off-duty firefighter helps save runner's life

'It’s not very often you get to say you’ve met people who saved your life,' says grateful runner, who collapsed near finish line and had no pulse

While runners raced for first place, Nicole Higgins raced to save a life.

A Newmarket family is singing the praises of Higgins, a Bradford firefighter, after she was part of a group of people who attended to Austin Gust during the Spring Fling Marathon in De La Salle Park, in Jackson’s Point on May 6.

Austin’s mother and father, Debbie and Kevin Gust, were in attendance, with Debbie filming as Austin was running a 21-km half marathon. He had just rounded the corner about 500 metres from the finish line, when his heart suddenly went into ventricular fibrillation and he fell to the ground with no pulse.

“A lot of emotions go through you. It was a surreal moment that turned quickly into the most traumatic moment a mother should ever have to witness,” Debbie said. “He ... collapsed right in front of my feet.”

That’s when an off-duty Higgins sprang into action, along with off-duty Selwyn firefighter, Bruce McMahon to administer CPR.

“I just got up from where I was sitting, which was near the finish line. I just ran down and self identified that I was a firefighter and asked if he needed any help. He said yes and asked me to start compressions,” Higgins said.

Higgins remembers she and McMahon continued CPR compressions on Austin for about 10 minutes, before volunteers from the race arrived with their medical bag and an automated external defibrillator (AED).

“I continued compressions and Bruce hooked up the AED and we worked him until it advised a shock and we got a shock,” she said. “We continued compressions after that because we couldn’t get a pulse still. We checked the femoral pulse, we checked carotid, and we couldn’t get an active pulse and the D-fib told us to continue CPR.”

A short time later, paramedics arrived and used their own AED to analyze Austin before loading him into the ambulance and taking him to Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket.

When asked what she was feeling in the moment, Higgins explained she felt “no real emotions.”

“Instincts kicked in and I just did what I thought was best for Austin to help him and his survival rate increase,” she said, adding that it was comforting to have another firefighter there, who knew similar protocols. “We clicked in sync pretty well.”

Higgins also said she felt compassion for the family, as they handled a difficult situation.

Once Austin was en route to hospital, all Debbie and her husband Kevin knew was that Austin had a pulse, and beyond that, they were in the dark.

“We didn’t know if he would be alive or dead by the time we got there. It was the longest drive of our lives,” Debbie said.

Upon arriving at the hospital, they were told that Austin had been put into a medically induced coma and was to stay that way for three days to prevent his heart rate from becoming elevated while the doctors tried to determine the cause of what had happened.

“We heard the word coma, and as parents that was another devastating blow. We knew he was alive, but you hear the word coma and it’s just processing all those emotions,” Debbie said.

Then, almost as suddenly as Austin had collapsed, he began to recover.

About 90 minutes after Debbie and Kevin were informed about the coma, Debbie remembers a nurse came into the waiting room to inform them that Austin was already blinking his eyes and waking up. Shortly after that, a nurse reported that Austin had fist-bumped another nurse and about two hours later, gave them a double thumbs up to let them know he was OK.

The Gusts went from seeing their son with no pulse, to seeing him hooked up to machines in the hospital to hearing he was OK — all within just a few hours.

Debbie said they were “joyful, grateful, blessed, overwhelmed, jubilant. We really felt like a miracle had happened, like it was divine intervention or something,” Debbie said.

Upon waking up in the hospital, Austin felt a bit loopy and confused. He didn’t remember anything about collapsing or being brought to the hospital.

“I think I had a very small cut on my hand and I looked at my hand and had no idea of what happened. I thought ‘Why am I in the hospital and why is my hand bloody,’ ” Austin said.

His last memory before that was stopping at the final refreshment stand along the marathon course.

“At that point I didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary. Obviously I was tired, but I didn’t feel any sort of alarming signals. And then I truly don’t remember anything until I was loopy when I got in the hospital. Everything that I know about the story is hearsay,” he said.

Austin said he spent about one week in hospital with the first few days in emergency, before being moved to the cardiac floor, where he was mostly mobile, and only needed to wear a heart monitor unless he was undergoing additional testing — all of which seemed to come back fine.

“Anything that would have caused issues, they’ve ruled that out for me and they literally said it was a one-in-one-million anomaly,” Austin said.

Debbie said the doctors still aren’t quite sure what caused the arrhythmia.

“They basically told us to think of your heart as plumbing versus electrical. What happened to him had nothing to do with plumbing; it was all electrical,” she said.

As a result, the medical team implanted a mini-defibrillator device in Austin’s torso which he will need to keep for the rest of his life. The device is a little wider than a hockey puck and thinner than the palm of the hand, weighing about 140 grams.

Aside from the device and some pills to help with the pain from the surgery, Austin was discharged from the hospital with no medication, and no lingering symptoms.

While a little uncomfortable at first, Austin said the device is settling in.

“It gives me confidence, but at the same time, I just don’t ever feel like that should have happened to me in the first place and that it won’t happen to me again. It definitely does give me that extra sense that I got some extra protection in my back pocket,” he said.

Austin said his recovery was quite quick and only two days after leaving the hospital, he was back to work.

“It’s not because anyone pressured me to, I just feel totally fine,” he said.

The good news doesn’t end there, though.

After a little bit of searching, Debbie was able to reconnect with both Higgins and McMahon and invited them to come meet with Austin while he was recovering at the family home in Newmarket on May 17, just a few days after he left hospital.

“It was pretty special for me. It’s not very often you get to say you’ve met people who saved your life. They’re fantastic people and I’m extremely grateful,” Austin said of Higgins and McMahon, who were able to help fill in some of the gaps and answer questions.

“They’re just honestly the nicest people, super down to earth. You can tell they clearly love what they do and they’re excited to help people and they love seeing people come out on the other side,” he said.

Both firefighters also gave Austin T-shirts and patches from their departments, which he now has on display in his apartment.

Those weren’t the only gifts though, as Debbie provided Higgins and McMahon with plenty of desserts to say thank you.

Higgins said she enjoyed meeting the Gust family, noting the reunion was emotional, but in a good way.

“You don’t often get that reconnection and a positive story. A lot of this job as a firefighter can be stressful and taxing. It provided hope, and reassurance and confidence in my role. I’m excited that he has the rest of his life to live now,” she said.

Beyond just the reunion, Higgins felt the whole experience was encouraging.

“Sometimes you see so much negative in your job and in the world, so when you see a group of strangers come together to complete such a huge task together, saving a life, it makes you hopeful of the world and that there’s good people out there who want to do good things,” she said

Austin had a similarly positive takeaway.

“I think everything you just see it in a different lens. Just a little bit more appreciation for some of the things you maybe take for granted on a day-to-day basis. I’m just happy to be here. I have a lot of support from friends and family,” he said.

Still, Debbie may have been the most grateful of all.

“I truly believe his guardian angel was with him that day and hand-picked the two Samaritans who also were highly trained in CPR to be there in that moment to save my son. Instead of planning a funeral, we are celebrating his life,” she said.

Still, she’s not leaving anything to chance.

“I’m gong to be getting our entire family CPR trained again. I just feel that everyone needs to understand about a defibrillator. I think that was my biggest take away,” she said.

Higgins advised that the best thing anyone can do if they see someone in medical distress is to call 911.

“Activation of first-responders quickly is a priority,” she said, adding that people shouldn’t be afraid to try to help.

“Sometimes people are not confident in their actions, but the AEDs are designed to be user friendly. There are photo instructions and verbal instructions. The dispatchers are really good, too. They can give verbal instructions on how to do CPR,” she said.