Guest Column: Proof that miracles do still happen

Heart attack survivor Joseph O'Byrne gives a special pin to Southold volunteer Renee Phelps, who performed CPR on Mr. O'Byrne and helped save his life in May. (Credit: Paul Squire)
Heart attack survivor Joseph O’Byrne gives a special pin to Southold volunteer Renee Phelps, who performed CPR on Mr. O’Byrne and helped save his life in May. (Credit: Paul Squire)

The Suffolk Times published a May 22 article involving me. It was titled “Southold EMTs, police save motorist who suffered heart attack.

I didn’t get the chance to read it then, because I was busy with other things. 

I was a truck driver for Jernick Moving & Storage, but on the morning of May 21, I was not driving. A younger man, Mike Volinski, was. He saw me slump forward in the truck and rather than panic and lose his head, he stayed calm and kept thinking. His actions set the events in motion that saved my life. He’s a hero, tested and proven. Like all heroes, he acted in the moment, without hesitation, and made the critical difference: Getting me to those who could help me.

Things could have been so very different but for his presence of mind and swift reaction.

Just short of Main Street in Southold, he recognized a friend of his, Jeff Weingart, who worked as a school traffic control officer. Knowing he was an EMT, Mike darn near locked up the brakes on the truck. It was barely stopped before he was diving across the road to get Jeff’s attention to get his help. As luck would have it, Paul Reinckens, also an EMT and a four-year Southold Fire Department veteran, had been following behind our truck. As he pulled around, he looked in through the still-open door of the cab and saw me slumped over.

Now it was his turn to lock up the brakes and race to the side of the truck, pulling me bodily from the cab. He acted quickly, on trained instinct, and immediately began administering CPR, forcing oxygen into my blood and that blood into my brain. His actions would prove critical to saving my life and saving my brain functions. Words cannot express my gratitude to him for saving both. Meanwhile, Jeff Weingart pulled the defibrillator from his vehicle. But luck had played its hand only so far that morning when, at this point, something more came into play. For traveling in the opposite direction was yet another EMT, firefighter Michelle Salmon. She quickly saw what was happening and stopped to lend her efforts as yet a fourth firefighter, Chris Drum, arrived from his office to assist.

For three minutes they worked on me, continuously applying CPR, except for the precious few seconds they shocked my heart with the defibrillator. Two or three times they tried and my heart failed to restart. Within four minutes of stopping the truck, the Southold ambulance was on the scene. Pretty quick if you ask me, but just one more of those events that makes me doubt it was just pure chance. By now, Fire Chief Peggy Killian was also on the scene.

I’ve been told that perhaps 20 or more EMT’s, police and firefighters swarmed the area that morning. Each of them was there because this is what they had trained for. This is what they had volunteered to do. This is what they practiced for over the years: to be the heroes who could step up in a crisis and make a critical difference in the life of a stranger.

When the ambulance arrived, I was moved into it and shocked a fourth time. This time, success: A heartbeat and independent breathing returned.

Death had claimed me for its own, and yet these people grabbed hold of my body and challenged death itself. Too poetic, you think? I was surely dead and yet these people dragged me back across the line, their actions shouting in the face of it, “He’s one of ours and we want him back.” They fought back and claimed me. Me, a total stranger. Nothing joining us together but our humanity, our shared experience of being human. What magnificent creatures we are, that we love life so much we would not see it taken from a single one of us.

Arriving at Greenport’s Eastern Long Island Hospital, the emergency room staff made a quick and critical decision. They believed my condition to be so extreme, that I needed to be moved up-Island to Stony Brook University Medical Center. Another quick decision was made to airlift me to Stony Brook. This transfer proved pivotal. My understanding is that during the trip to Stony Brook, I died again. For the fourth or fifth time that day, the defibrillators were used to bring me back.

Upon arrival at Stony Brook, I was taken into the hospital’s specialized cardio-thoracic operating rooms. The goal was to stabilize the situation in preparation for surgery the next day, May 22 — surgery that consisted of a quadruple bypass for the heart and related procedures.

Dr. Harold Fernandez was the surgeon who handled everything. From an essentially hopeless situation, Dr. Fernandez and his team were able to make good on the hard work of the EMTs. The EMTs forced death to wait for another day to claim me, yet it was Dr. Fernandez and his team, their talent and brilliant skills, who were able to make sure I stayed on this side of the line. Their years of hard work and study made sure I didn’t slip away yet again.

The staff at Stony Brook was outstanding. They deserve all the support we can give them because through their efforts, they give each of us the chance to live.

So now the recovery process begins. I can no longer drive trucks, so the future is uncertain. I’ve done many jobs in my life, even been a consultant to pension funds. I’ve been blessed with a multitude of experiences and, obviously, an abundance of help to keep me here. My future is in the hands of another, who for some unknown reason interceded for me on that beautiful day in May. All I can do is tell my story and assure you: Miracles do still happen.

They happen to ordinary people like you and me. Prayer does work. I am deeply thankful to each and everyone who kept me here.