Saving a life

Artie and Christy Kerns visited the Hull Volunteer Fire Department last week to meet with the firefighters who saved Artie’s life during a major heart attack on Oct. 26. Pictured are Daniel Newton, Adam Seagraves, Alan Hart, Frank Edwards, Alan Lapcynski, Chief Jason Austin (shaking hands with Kerns), Kevin Cheek, Tony Drake, Derek Moore, David Derosier, Chandler Austin, Jacob Johnson, Kenny Weaver and Donny Evans. Photo courtesy of Christy Kerns

Today (Thursday, Nov. 14) is Artie Kerns’ 59th birthday. It’s a birthday he probably wouldn’t be around to celebrate if it weren’t for the efforts of some Hull firefighters.

Saturday, Oct. 26, began like most other Saturdays in the Kerns’ Oglethorpe County home. Kerns’ wife Christy left for work about 9 a.m.

“When I left, Artie seemed just fine,” she said. He’d followed her to the kitchen door for a goodbye kiss and then went to take a shower. The only difference, looking back, the Kerns now say, was in their cats. Both are animal lovers, and Artie has a particular affinity for cats.

“Those cats were all over Artie,” Christy said. “He was sitting on the couch before I left and they were just all over him.” When he followed her to the kitchen, they followed too, right on his heels and around his legs.

“It was a lot more affection than usual,” Christy said. “It’s like they knew something was going on with him.”

Artie agrees, making a joke out of it now.

“I say they were trying to give me a ‘cat scan’ and nobody was paying attention,” he says smiling. “They knew something was up with me. We’ll pay more attention to them next time.”

And something was up, something big.

About 15 or 20 minutes later, Christy got a phone call from her husband, saying he didn’t feel so well and asking her to drop by his office to pick up his blood pressure meds, which he’d left at work on Friday. Both work for Oconee County, she as the event coordinator for the Civic Center and he as the county’s maintenance supervisor.

“When I got out of the shower and I felt a sharp tingling run down both my arms,” Kerns said. “It hit me just like that.” He also began to sweat profusely. At first, he thought his blood pressure was spiking because he hadn’t taken his meds, but then he became sick to his stomach and light-headed.

His sister-in-law was at their house doing laundry, so he told her he wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to help her and his older brother Danny work on their home that day. Suzy asked if he needed anything and he told her he thought he’d be OK, so she left, telling him she’d be back shortly.

“I guess I was gone about 30 minutes,” Suzy said. When she came back she noticed Artie was pale and clammy when she touched his forehead. At that point she told Artie he had to go to the hospital or at least to an urgent care. She and Danny loaded Artie into their small SUV and started toward Piedmont Athens Regional. As they traveled, Suzy was on the phone with Christy, who immediately left work and headed toward Piedmont to meet them at the emergency department.

Artie, who was sitting in the backseat, says the last thing he remembers about that morning was the SUV turning onto Hwy. 72 in Colbert. Then he blacked out.

“The next thing I knew I was waking up in cardiac intensive care,” Artie said.

Meanwhile Suzy, who was driving, was keeping an eye on her brother-in-law in the rear view mirror when she saw his eyes roll back in his head and his body slump over to one side. She said Danny tried to wake him as she continued to race toward Athens.

They were passing by the water tower in Hull when she remembers praying, “Lord you’ve got to help me.”

“I thought I was watching Artie die, I just knew we weren’t going to make it to the hospital,” Suzy said. “Then it just hit me, I needed to head to the fire department.”

She told Danny where they were going as they made the turn onto Old Elberton Road. She didn’t take time to think about it or whether or not someone would be there, she said she just knew that’s where she had to go.

For Hull Fire Department members, it was a big day — the day of their barbecue fundraiser and the whole fire department was there to help.

“I just pulled up honking the horn and started yelling,” Suzy said. “Danny opened the back door and they all came running.”

Hull Fire Chief Jason Austin said fire department members were scattered around the fire department that morning. Some were in the kitchen, others at the fire pit and still others setting up tables, etc. when the Kerns drove into the parking lot.

“Frank Edwards, Jim Creager and Kenny Weaver were the first to get to them,” Austin said. “Frank got the AED (Automated External Defibrillator) while Jim and Kenny administered CPR. Mr. Kerns was fully coded when he arrived.”

Someone else got on the radio and called for an ambulance, which arrived soon after.

Austin said he’s been with the fire department 21 years and it’s the first time to his knowledge that a situation like that has come to them.

“It’s a very rare occasion for something like that to happen,” Austin said. “Usually, we are coming to your home, I am just thankful that we were there (at the fire hall) that morning.”

Austin said being able to make a difference — in this case to save a life — is why they do what they do.

As soon as the firemen reached the car, Artie was carefully laid out on the pavement and CPR got underway, which included the administration of the AED to establish a heart rhythm.

Meanwhile, Christy was waiting and worrying at the hospital. She and Suzy were on the phone with each other but kept getting disconnected.

“I kept putting it (cell phone) on mute without realizing it and hanging up,” Suzy said chuckling. “Christy was just so calm, she just kept telling me to breathe.”

Christy said she kept remembering how her late mother, a first responder, always handled things.

“She saw it all and she always told me to just remember to breathe, so that’s what I did and what I kept telling Suzy to do,” she said.

When Madison County EMS arrived at the hospital with Artie, he was conscious, but confused, Christy said. After a few quick tests, he was taken into the cardiac cath lab, where the family later learned that he had coded again, requiring the use of an AED a second time. After he was stabilized, a cardiologist placed stents in two arteries, one that was 100 percent blocked and another that was 99 percent blocked.

“All of that took place in just over an hour,” Christy said, shaking her head. “When Artie started asking me about how long it had been I was surprised when I looked at my watch and saw it wasn’t even 11 a.m. yet. So much had happened in such a short time.”

On Monday, Artie received two more stents in a third artery that was 85 percent blocked.

Today, Artie looks like a perfectly fit man, clear-eyed with a healthy complexion. He says he feels great, but is following his doctor’s orders and taking it easy, one day at a time. He will soon start cardiac rehabilitation and expects to return to work in a few weeks.

“God just had everything in place,” Christy said of the day she nearly lost her husband, her voice breaking. “They (firemen) were all there, all of them and they saved his life. How do you thank someone for something like that?”

Last week, Artie and Christy made a stop at the Hull Fire Department to try to do just that. Once again, all the fireman were there, this time for their monthly meeting and a chili dinner.

“Volunteer firemen and first responders don’t get the credit they deserve for what they do,” Christy said. “They leave their homes, their jobs at a moment’s notice to answer a call for help, to try to make a difference in their communities. What they do, as volunteers, is invaluable.”

Kerns is a hunter and he said he plans to give the firemen a wild hog as a small token of the gratitude he and his entire family feels.

“I mean; how do you ever repay someone for saving your life?” Artie said.

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