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Chance Meeting After CPR Training Saves Pittsfield Man

Josh Landes
Alisa Costa, Don Hill, and Christine Isca

On August 22nd, a chance encounter between two strangers in Pittsfield saved a life.

Alisa Costa is the initiative director for Working Cities Pittsfield, and a Pittsfield resident.

"I was headed to North Adams on my way to a full day community workshop," she told WAMC. "I had to pick up a co-worker on Columbus Avenue before heading out.”

Costa, 45, lives on the other side of the city. The drive to pick up her co-worker took her across town to the West Side neighborhood. It’s a close knit working class community that’s struggled greatly with the opioid epidemic and a recent uptick in violent crime. About a week after the incident, Costa took WAMC to the intersection where she first saw a body lying on the sidewalk.

“I noticed a car going the opposite direction, stopped in the main lane, not pulled over, using his cell phone," said Costa. "And my first initial reaction is like, dude, why are you doing that? But when I turned my head to the right, there was a man lying down at the street corner. My initial reaction was, why would a homeless person just be sleeping there on the corner of West Union and Onota Street? And somebody else was walking toward him on the street and bent down to shake him, and I thought, hmm, that’s interesting. And then the gentleman who shook him shouted, he’s blue, he’s blue! And I thought, wow, we’ve got to stop.”

She pulled over and got out of the car.

“I have been trained in both Narcan administration and also, very recently, the month before, in layperson CPR,” she explained.

That’s a form of CPR designed for use by passers-by to keep someone alive before EMTs arrive. There’s no mouth to mouth involved – just chest compressions.

“So I grabbed the Narcan from my purse, not knowing what the cause was, and went to look and see what I could do,” she said.

She first administered Narcan, and then began chest compressions.

“It was kind of tunnel vision," said Costa. "There was another gentleman who was helping me with chest compressions, but I don’t remember what he looks like or anything like that, and then he disappeared afterwards, but we were talking each other through it.”

Costa learned CPR through a workshop at the West Side Community Outreach Post at the nearby headquarters of the Central Berkshire Habitat For Humanity. Through her work with Working Cities Pittsfield, Costa had been directly involved in responding to resident demand for the post, established earlier this year as a collaboration between community volunteers and the Pittsfield Police Department. It’s intended to help increase safety and improve communication between residents and law enforcement.

“And I was so grateful to have had the training, because I asked a lot of questions during the training," said Costa. "What is it going to feel like, what does it look like, what am I going to expect. And a lot of the things that the trainer said actually happened, so I knew I was doing something right.”

The man on the ground began to gasp, and within minutes, firefighters from the station just down Columbus Avenue arrived.

Once County Ambulance got there, something happened that Costa wasn’t expecting.

“As they took over, I noticed that one of the County Ambulance workers was the woman who trained me," she said. "And I didn’t know her name – I couldn’t remember her name at the time, her name is Christine Isca. And so I tapped her on the shoulder and said, hey, you trained me at the West Side COP!”

"I’m a paramedic with County Ambulance,” said Christine Isca.

Isca also does community outreach and holds training sessions. When the Community Outreach Post opened, County Ambulance determined it was the right place to bring that knowledge into the West Side.

“So I approached them to see if they wanted to start doing CPR classes there," she told WAMC. "And the idea is for not just for the people who work there, but the idea is for anyone who might lack being able to come to the training, it's more like bringing the training to the community.”

County Ambulance documents the outcomes of all of its interventions – who survives a medical emergency, and who doesn’t.

“The one piece that was always missing though was the lay person CPR," said Isca. "We’ve noticed in our trends that lay people just don’t want to start that, so bringing hands-only CPR has been really important to our community.”

Isca says Alisa Costa, her unnamed helper, and the man on the sidewalk were the exception to that rule – in more ways than one.

“I have been doing this job for 20 years," she told WAMC. "This is the first time that I’ve met a survivor.”

“I’ve lived in Pittsfield since I was 16," said Don Hill, 67. "I used to be a cook. I got married when I was 19. What else is there to know? I like fishing. That’s about it. I like to yardwork, I really do. I like to get outdoors and do that stuff. Other than that, just a normal life.”

The morning of August 22nd, he’d just come in from walking his dog when, before he realized it, the unleashed dog scampered back out into the street.

“And they tell me I chased after him, and I don’t remember the rest of day," said Hill. "I have no idea what happened for that day or the next one. Then I woke up in the hospital and I figured out what was going on. They said I had a heart attack.”

Now, two months after he was lying blue in the face on the side of the road, Hill is in good health. Doctors at Baystate Medical Center put stents in his heart, and when WAMC came to meet with Hill, he was in his back yard using a leaf blower.

“The guy who takes the heart pictures, he said, he looked at him and he said, it looks like a normal heart, nothing wrong," he said. "Blood’s pumping good. Everything. I’m doing great. That’s all there is, it’s just back to normal.”

That morning, Hill and Costa set up a meeting, their first since fate brought them together. But this time, Don would be awake.

“I want to thank her so much," he told WAMC. "If she wasn’t there, I probably wouldn’t be this good. Because she was there that quick, I guess, they say.”

Don is a religious man. He attributes the events of the day he had the heart attack and Costa’s response to God’s plan.

“I’m glad she was put there in the place at the time," Hill said. "I can’t wait to meet her to see what kind of person that is. I think it’s amazing too that she just took the lessons for that and happened to work out. See? Everything is put in its place. You let it work. That’s my opinion.”

“Oh he’s good, he’s a good man," said Roseanne Hill, Don's wife. "He’s fair, he’s honest – very honest. Hard worker. Dedicated. Good father. He’s just great.”

The family prepared flowers, gifts, and a meal complete with a cake bearing the Heart Association logo on it for Costa’s visit. Surrounded by her daughters, it’s still hard for Roseanne to talk about what happened.

“Oh, it was terrible at first to go through that, because…” she said before choking up.

“I know ma," said daughter Jennifer, who steps in. “You just don’t even understand how grateful we are for her. She’s my hero.”

“To think he was gone," continued Roseanne. "We lost him! And she saved him. When you think of doing something for someone who saved your husband’s life, it’s like – what can you do? An amount of money can’t even thank her. It’s just amazing that he’s…”

“He’s dad again! He’s our dad again,” said Jennifer.

Outside the house, Costa waits in her car with her partner Ted.

“I’ve been replaying the day in my head all morning, and it’s kind of – it hasn’t been able to get out of my head," she told WAMC. "And so I don’t know what to expect, I don’t know what I’m going to say. I’m kind of grateful to be able to meet Don and hear from him.”

After a deep breath, Costa makes her way in.

“You’re the angel?" asked Hill. "God bless you.”

“You look great!” responded Costa.

“I feel great!" said Hill. "100 percent!”

“Oh good! I’m glad! You look a lot better today!” said Costa to laughter.

Costa tears up, and the Hills profess their thanks. Don and Alisa sit down together.

“She’s special," he said. "She’ll always be special, because you’re the one who kept me going! I don’t know anybody else – I don’t know the rest. If I did, I would. You’re the one.”

“I kept sort of thanking them in my head, even on social media – it took a team," she responded. "We’re not alone in our community, and we need to know that.”

“We shouldn’t be. That’s what makes a community better," said Don.

“And I think of all the things in my life that lead me to that moment," said Alisa. "My moving to Pittsfield and choosing to move here and the work that I do with Working City Pittsfield, bringing West Side COP to the Central Berkshire Habitat office, and then the residents there decided they wanted they wanted to do a CPR training, so bringing County Ambulance in, and my office is literally across the hall from where they’re doing the training, so I thought, oh gosh, might as well get brought up to date on that, that I happened to be on the opposite side of town from where I live because I was going to a workshop because of that work – all of that, to land me at that particular spot on Onota Street that morning.”

“He’s got it all planned out,” said Don.

“I’ve played it out in my head so many times,” said Alisa.

“I will now. That’s great," responded Don. "I can’t thank you enough. Really.”

Another key player in the story is also here to celebrate – Christine Isca, the County Ambulance staffer who taught Costa CPR back in July.

“It’s very surreal," she told WAMC. "It’s very surreal. It means so much to me to be able to meet everybody and to, like I said, to see Don vertical, because the last time I saw him was during that event. It’s not something we get the opportunity to do very often.”

For her, the lesson from this rare happy ending is simple.

“The most important thing is to do something," said Isca. "Is to act. Whether it’s calling for help, whether it’s actually putting your hands on somebody to wake them up, to getting trained to do CPR or any type of layperson training. The important thing is to do something. We’re in a very weird time right now where people are very complacent, and able to just walk away from an emergency that’s in front of them, and we’ve seen that quite frequently. And so the most amazing thing is to just have somebody who’s willing to act, and somebody who’s willing to help. That willingness is really what ends up saving lives.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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