David beats the odds

Recently, cardiac arrest survivor David Willis and his wife Nicky met the people who helped save the father of two’s life. By all accounts David, who underwent gruelling quintuple by-pass surgery after his heart failed him while on holiday, is very, very lucky to be alive.

Intensive Care Paramedic, Chris Deacon, who attended the special reunion, said David’s chance of survival was, “10% at most”.

“Deacs”, as Chris is known as around base, credits AJ and his wife Julie’s efforts, together with the kindness of strangers, as the true heroes who helped David beat those odds.

“It was their quick thinking that started what we term ‘the chain of survival’,” Chris said.

The fight to save David’s life began early in the morning on Easter Sunday, 16th April 2017.

The Willis family, which includes 13-year-old Jack and 11-year-old Rosa, were enjoying a holiday at a place they’d rented on Omaha Beach. It was the break of day and David decided he would go for a run along a pathway by the beach. Given the time of day, David thought he had the beach to himself. Fortunately, for him, he wasn’t entirely alone.

AJ Hazelhurst and his family were holidaying a few doors down. AJ’s wife Julie would normally walk her dogs, Pepe and Macy, around the same time. Julie managed to persuade AJ to come with her and, strangely enough, she brought her cell phone too – something she wouldn’t normally do. Julie, AJ and the phone would be instrumental in saving David’s life.

Down on the beach, the couple met David, who, up until this point, was a complete stranger. They exchanged a few pleasantries before David took off on his run. AJ and Julie, with dogs in tow, followed behind at a more leisurely pace.

The couple thought it might be the last they saw of their neighbour that day. How wrong they were.

About two minutes later, as they continued along the path, they came across David again, only this time, lying face down. With hands by his side, he hadn’t tried to stop his fall. Glasses smashed and face messed up, David lay dead in front of them. Life took a different turn for them that day. The race to save David’s life had only just begun.

AJ instinctively knew what was he was witnessing. Just two weeks earlier, he had completed a CPR course after putting his hand up to coach his son’s rowing team. Another remarkable coincidence.

Clearing his head, he began 30 minutes of CPR on David to the tune of ‘Staying Alive’, just as he had been taught.

Julie dialled 111. She ran back to their beach house to get some extra help. Downloading the AED app on her phone, she managed to pinpoint the location of the nearest defibrillator. Julie sent a friend to retrieve it from the local surf club. Not long afterwards, a lifeguard arrived to help shock David’s heart back into action. Shortly after that, St John arrived on scene. Resourceful Julie also discovered David had his phone on him. Using David’s thumbprint to open it, she figured out Nicky was his wife and called her.

The Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter was tasked at 8am to assist David who was Status: (or Code) 1 – in need of critical life-saving care.

Dr. Emily Junck, alongside Deacs, worked hard to help stabilise David. The crew cannot praise the efforts of everyone involved in David’s rescue prior to their arrival enough.

AJ, worried that his efforts weren’t enough, said he finally breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted David’s toes wiggling on the stretcher. The heart surgeons were amazed that AJ, of a bigger build than David, hadn’t broken any of his ribs. Everyone agreed at the recent reunion, that this modest gentle giant was the true hero of the day.

David would spend five days in the Intensive Care Unit, and a couple of weeks in hospital, before he was given the all-clear to go home. David continues to recover. Exercising regularly and undergoing intense weekly rehabilitation, he has been told, reassuringly, his heart is better than it’s ever been in years.

The irony of it being an Easter event wasn’t lost on daughter Rosa’s friend who commented that David had died and come back to life again. David says he is grateful for every day with his family. “Every day I hug them and tell them how much I love them,” he says.

Our team were grateful we could make the reunion happen, especially as HEMS Dr. Emily has finished her time with us. David, AJ and Nicky were especially happy to see her just before she returned home to the States.

David remembers Emily reassuringly holding his hand after coming to in the helicopter, dazed, confused and anxious. Emily would stay with Nicky and David in the hospital until he received his CT scan.

Pictured left to right are: Dr. Emily Junck, David Willis & AJ Hazelhurst.