[Photo: Ray Cooper with the Puppy Creek Firefighters and one of the Cape Fear Valley EMS paramedics who rushed to his rescue.]
By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Ray Cooper doesn’t remember much about the day he nearly died.
Just like any other day, he left his home July 14 to go for a walk along Johnson Mill Road. It was while he was on the way back that he suffered heart trouble.
Cooper doesn’t recall the events, but the rescuers who took the call heard that it happened like this: a woman noticed Cooper walking as she drove past him. When she stopped at a stop sign and glanced in her rearview mirror, she saw him collapsed on the ground. She went back to see what was wrong, and others stopped to help, too.
Good Samaritans including the unknown woman, a Lumbee River EMC employee and even one of Cooper’s neighbors jumped into action. They called 911 and started giving Cooper CPR. Firefighters from Puppy Creek Fire Department, located just up the road, got there within minutes of getting the call.
The firefighters brought out an automatic defibrillator carried on their truck. After they defibrillated him three times, Cooper showed signs of life. Cape Fear Valley paramedics arrived and took him to the hospital.
Puppy Creek Fire Department Chief John Joseph was there at the scene that day. He didn’t mince words about it when Cooper stopped by the station Monday to talk with the people who came to his rescue.
“I’m pretty much a guy who will tell you like it is. The Lord has a plan for you, because you were not here that day,” Joseph told Cooper. “Before they put you in the EMS unit, your respirations were back and you had a heartbeat. You didn’t have that when we got there.”
The firefighters who were there are “very skilled” at their job, Joseph said. Cooper’s wife, Daisy Cooper, agreed with him.
“We can tell they are, because he wouldn’t be here today,” she said.
Not only did Cooper survive, he beat the odds. Most people who suffer a cardiac event like his don’t come out of it unscathed, Emergency Medical Services Director Scott Phillips said.
“Less than 20 percent walk out of the hospital intact,” he said.
The doctor at the hospital told the couple that he’d only ever seen a handful of patients come through it as well as Cooper did.
“Whoever the first person was on the scene, that was the person that saved his life,” Mrs. Cooper said. “Most everybody, they have some brain damage or they died from it. He’s really blessed to be here today, because of those compressions that were started.”
Even then, it was a close call. Cooper ended up spending a week in the hospital.
“They didn’t know if he had brain damage from it, from being without oxygen. They didn’t know exactly how long he was without oxygen,” Mrs. Cooper said.
Cooper might not remember what happened July 14, but the people who saved his life remember him. It’s not often firefighters and paramedics get to see what happens after they get a patient to a hospital. But this week, they got to meet the man himself.
He arrived at Puppy Creek Fire Department with a new pacemaker and walking on his own two feet, some six weeks after his life-threatening medical emergency.
“I’ve been doing real good” he told the first responders, and thanked them for coming to his aid.
“I can see you did your job because I’m here, I’m appreciative,” he said.
“I’m just thankful for everybody that stopped, because some people are leery about giving help to somebody that’s all on the ground,” Mrs. Cooper added.
The firefighters and Cape Fear Valley emergency medical responders hope Cooper’s story will show how important it is for people to learn how to give CPR. A program called RACE CARS (a speedy acronym for a long and complicated title) seeks to study how fast intervention affects the outcome for people who suffer a cardiac arrest.
“The early defibrillation and the early CPR is the key to RACE CARS. They’re the first few links in the chain of survival, and that’s really what we want to stress,” Phillips said. “The early recognition, the early defibrillation, because that’s where the difference is made.”
It’s likely that every day in Hoke County, someone will suffer life-threatening heart trouble. Puppy Creek firefighters end up performing CPR every day, Joseph said, as do paramedics. But the question is, will someone nearby know how to perform CPR in those first precious minutes while trained professionals rush to get there?
Emergency responders want to increase the chances that the answer to that is “yes,” by training citizens in how to do CPR. Today, CPR can focus mainly on chest compressions without giving mouth-to-mouth breathing. It reduces any risk for a rescuer to catch any kind of illness from the person they’re trying to help.
“Just pumping on somebody’s chest, you can’t catch anything but it hugely makes a difference,” Phillips said.
People interested in learning CPR can reach out to Cape Fear Valley to set it up, Phillips said. Puppy Creek Fire Department also holds CPR training quarterly. The community is invited to participate.
“It can take 10 minutes of your time for us to teach that,” Puppy Creek Assistant Chief Travis Bunce said.
Cooper had many people to thank. Women named Cheryl and Tonya and a Mr. Pittman who stopped to help, and first responders Puppy Creek firefighters Donovan Lane, Will Overton and Billy Fuchs, and paramedics Aislinn Otero, Erica Childress and Ryan Sellars among them.
Fuchs and Overton are repeat lifesavers. In 2020, North Carolina Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal Mike Causey honored them and fellow firefighters Bryan Dubois and Marshall Jackson for saving the life of a baby who choked on a penny.
During their visit this week the fire department gave the Coopers some happier mementos including t-shirts, a hat and fire department patch. Before they left the station, Cooper even got a chance to ride in the same fire truck that came to his rescue.
Ask him about what knowing CPR can mean to someone, and he can tell you.
“I know it’s beneficial. I worked at a prison and the military, and I know this rapid response does help a person. I was once in an incident myself to aid somebody, and they came through,” Cooper said. “I know this is beneficial, especially to a person that just fell.”