Carling Willis: Giving A Second Chance

Mar 20, 2018

The human heart beats about 80 times per minute, 4,800 times an hour and 115,200 times a day. It's such a natural process, we don’t think about every individual heartbeat. But each one matters, our life depends on every one of those beats. I never thought of life in heartbeats until the summer of 2016, when a man relied on me to keep his heart beating.  

I enrolled in a lifeguard certification class when I was sixteen with the mindset that lifeguarding would be a worthwhile summer job and I'd get a phenomenal tan. I worked with people around my age, made close friends and spent my summer by a pool playing with kids. Every day brought about the same order of events. We'd open and vacuum the pool, teach swim lessons then spend the rest of the day rotating between the lifeguard chairs, watching the swimmers. It was pretty laid back and we all looked forward to going to work.

For two summers I went through the motions with my life-saving and first aid skills but never applying them, other than when a child would trip and scrape his or her knee or get stung by a bee, something minor, something easy to fix. Never anything that impacted my life or anyone else's.

My third summer working there, we had a game day at the pool. I was organizing relay races and dividing up the teams when I heard shrill screaming coming from the back fence behind the pool. I immediately stopped what I was doing and ran over to the woman. She looked pale, like she had just seen a ghost. Her voice was trembling and it was hard to understand what she was saying, but she managed to choke out that a golfer had fallen unconscious on the course and needed immediate attention.

My heart sank. By the look on her face I knew this wasn’t just a dehydrated man who fainted due to the heat. This was serious and she was coming to me for help. I questioned her, making sure she had called 911 then I went into action. I jumped the fence and hopped in her golf cart and she sped me and another lifeguard to the green where the man was laying on the ground.

There was a small group gathered around him. Everyone looked confused and scared. The other lifeguard and I jumped out of the cart and kneeled next to the man to assess his vitals, replaying everything we learned in our certification classes.

The man appeared to be in his late fifties. We started performing CPR. He was not breathing and had no heartbeat. While I did chest compressions the other lifeguard provided rescue breaths. It felt like we were doing the thirty compressions-two breaths rotation for hours. Time was going by so slow.

EMTs finally arrived. They immediately reassessed his vitals. Our compressions helped the man regain his heartbeat, but he was not breathing on his own. The EMTs used a defibrillator and got his breathing back, but he was still unconscious when they rushed him away in the ambulance.

For days I waited impatiently, there was no word on his condition. I was sick with anxiety waiting to hear if he'd come out of his coma and if he'd be OK. I went back to work two days later feeling frustrated and defeated; with this much time passing it must mean bad news. To my surprise, as soon as I walked in my boss found me and gave me great news. The man woke up out of his coma and was going to be just fine.

About a week after the man was released from the hospital, the other lifeguard and I were given the chance to meet him and his wife. He told us about himself, his life, his interests and his family. We were able to give him insights to our lives as well. We told him where we attended college, what we were studying, and what we hoped to do in life. This meeting was so important to all of us. Seeing the man and talking to him helped myself and everyone feel the closure we needed to put that horrific day in the past.

Knowing I played a role in giving another person a second chance at life is the most special, rewarding feeling. Knowing how much I impacted this man’s life as well as his family and friends’ lives is incredible. And seeing how proud I made my parents, family and friends is something I'll never forget. 

This experience helps me look at life differently. Everyone hears the saying “never take life for granted” but sometimes it takes a dramatic moment like this to fully feel and understand how precious the gift of life really is. Treasuring our own life can start with something as simple as appreciating every little heartbeat.

Carling Willis is from Ellington, Connecticut. She is a junior English and Communication major at Western New England University.

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