Residents have a higher likelihood of surviving a heart attack in Colorado Springs than most other places in the nation, and odds look even better when paramedic Austin Pugh is directing the care.
Pugh, a six-year firefighter and paramedic, has brought 11 people back from a flat line, an “incredible” record, according to his peers. For comparison, the department treated 134 cardiac arrests in the last five months of 2018, of which 9 nine patients were successfully resuscitated.
The 28-year-old’s reputation as a literal lifesaver is one of the reasons the Fire Department’s medical director, Dr. Stein Bronsky, described him as “the best paramedic I’ve ever worked with” during an awards ceremony in February.
Pugh is more modest.
“It wasn’t something I did; it was something the team did that I was a part of,” Pugh told The Gazette during a recent shift at a southeast Colorado Springs fire station. “We’re all trying to be our best.”
Their best is better than average.
Nationally, the likelihood of surviving a heart attack with little to no neurological damage is 12 percent, according to the latest data from the American Heart Association. In Colorado Springs, the success rate is about 20 percent, Mark Warth, the Fire Department’s medical program coordinator, said.
The credit goes in large part to the department’s knowledgeable and well-trained staff, from EMTs to medics and paramedics, Warth said. But credit is also due the community, to the bystanders who step in to start CPR until help arrives.
The gold standard is 100-120 compressions per minute, which just about matches the beat of the Bee Gees’ 1977 hit, “Stayin’ Alive.”
Those early compressions are what allow medical responders, like Pugh, to be successful, because they keep the heart “viable” long enough to be receptive to more advanced care, Warth said. Every minute blood is not pumped through the heart to the brain, the survival rate decreases by 10 percent.
In Colorado Springs, 68 percent of cardiac arrests are witnessed, Warth said. If more of those bystanders started CPR instead of watching, filming or, worse yet, acting “bothered” by the inconvenience, the survival rate could jump to around 50 percent, as seen in cities like Seattle and Phoenix.
“It takes a village to save someone’s life,” Warth said. “If they look like they’re dead, push on their chest until we get there.”
Then, watch experts like Pugh work.
As a paramedic, he directs emergency care, determining which medications are used and when electrical shocks are needed. It’s his job to try to keep patients alive after their heart starts beating again, because, as he’s quick to point out, “it’s not like the movies.” Individuals aren’t just conscious and steady when they’re revived. Their heartbeat can fluctuate.
He recalled fondly one of his saves: A 20-year-old woman whose heart mysteriously stopped beating while she slept. She crashed several more times on the way to the hospital. He didn’t know if she survived.
Two weeks later, he was running on a call in the same area when he spotted the woman outside, enjoying her life.
“Being a paramedic is not easy,” Pugh said. “It’s a very high-stress job. It’s a lot of life and death decisions and everyone else on the crew relying on you … but I love the challenge of it. I love the idea of being a person that is able to significantly impact someone’s life — keep them alive or help bring them back.”
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