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Emergency action: Off-duty Upstate doctors and nurses respond to people in distress

illustration of helping hands

Doctors, nurses and others in caring professions spend their careers taking care of people. Sometimes their lifesaving efforts occur outside of their work hours.

Though not legally obligated to help, many professional caregivers are programmed to respond in an emergency.

Gridiron collapse

During a football game at Christian Brothers Academy at the end of last summer, sophomore running back Melvin Beard was leaving the field after a touchdown when he collapsed. He became unconscious. His heart stopped.

Several medical providers helped revive him using the school’s automated external defibrillator.

Among those who helped were anesthesiologist Joe Reagan, MD, and Upstate graduate and family practitioner Mike Picciano, MD, who are on the CBA staff of assistant coaches, along with physician assistant Ben Connor and spine surgeon Rich Tallarico, MD, Upstate people who were attending the game.

A month later, Beard explained that he had an undetected birth defect in his heart. “If it didn’t happen on that field, I probably wouldn’t be here right now. So, I’m just thankful for that,” he told Syracuse.com. He underwent heart surgery and returned to the CBA field for the homecoming game at the end of September. Teammates awarded him the game ball.

Heimlich help

Upstate nurse anesthetist David Vargo was eating at New Ling Ling Chinese Buffet in North Syracuse in mid-May when he noticed a commotion at a nearby table.

“Grandma is turning blue!” a young girl cried.

Vargo determined the older woman was choking. He tried to unblock her windpipe while she remained seated in her chair. When that didn’t work, he pulled the woman to the floor, straddled her thighs and did eight abdominal thrusts, which dislodged the food that was choking her.

“In anesthesia, the primary concern is always the airway, the breathing. So I just went into auto mode and knew what to do,” says Vargo. The incident brought back memories of the first time he performed the Heimlich maneuver in a restaurant – 30 years ago, when he was 18 and working as an emergency medical technician.

Runner revived

Four nurses sprang into action when they heard that a runner fell and was bleeding from his head as they were finishing a class at CrossFit Syracuse. One of them grabbed the gym’s automated external defibrillator as they dashed out the door.

Greg O’Polka had tied on his sneakers and started a warm-up run on Thompson Road, near CrossFit, when he fell forward. Fellow runners immediately began cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Upstate nurse Katie Freeborn, colleagues Katheryn Dunn and Lindsay Watkins and another nurse took over CPR when they arrived.

Freeborn says the nurses easily fell into their professional caregiving roles on that August morning in 2018. “After the fact, I was like ‘Wow. That just happened.’ ” Later, a doctor told them they had likely saved the man’s life.

O’Polka recovered from heart bypass surgery and attended the American Red Cross Real Heroes Breakfast in December, where the nurses received the “Good Neighbor Award.” He returned to working out at the CrossFit gym on Memorial Day weekend.

Crash reaction

A third-year medical student from Upstate sprang into action in April in Brighton, N.Y., when she witnessed a car crash that left one driver critically injured.

Shannon Kaupp stopped to render aid to the young man, who stopped breathing. “My mind was racing,” she admitted to Spectrum News. “If you could’ve heard my mind during those moments, I was like ‘OK, Shannon, think. You got this. You’ve got to help him out.”

The Brighton Police Department gave Kaupp the Citizen Citation Award, saying “had you not assisted, it is likely the driver would have died.” Kaupp says the young man is recovering in a rehabilitation center.

Upstate Health magazine summer 2019 issue coverThis article appears in the summer 2019 issue of Upstate Health magazine.