Church is where some people go to experience new life, in the spiritual sense. But for one Jonesboro man, church is where the local Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield team donated a device that saved his life.
On a Wednesday evening in April, Deacon Phil Cook was standing just outside the First Free Will Baptist Church sanctuary when he experienced a strange sensation. “I felt a fuzzy kind of feeling in my head, and I reached back to catch myself,” Cook recalled. “That’s the last thing I remember until I was being loaded in the ambulance.”
Cook, 79, a retired tool-and-die maker, had been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat more than 20 years ago but was under treatment. Since his diagnosis, he said he had never experienced any serious heart problems. It had been a normal Wednesday … he was preparing to plant a garden and he and Gloria, his wife of 60 years, were planning to visit family the following week in New Mexico.
“All of a sudden, Brother Phil’s eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped like a sack of potatoes,” said fellow deacon Ronald Wheeless, who was standing nearby.
Stunned church members rushed to help. Gloria, a retired nurse, checked for a pulse and found none. CPR was started.
For the first few seconds, Wheeless was frozen with shock as he saw his fallen mentor lying motionless, perhaps dead. Then Wheeless’ wife reminded him of the church’s new AED.
A lifesaving gift
Last January, employees at the ArkansasBlue location in Jonesboro (a regional office for Arkansas Blue Cross) donated the automated external defibrillator (AED) to the church Cook through the Jonesboro-based Community Health Education Foundation (CHEF) AED Placement Program. The lifesaving devices cost anywhere from $1,200 to $3,000.
An AED deliver an electrical shock to restart a heart that has stopped beating. The straightforward design of the device makes it easy for virtually anyone to use in emergency situations. Wheeless actually had picked the spot to install the AED box. He was among the members who had been trained only a month before the incident.
“When you get something like an AED, it’s kind of like buying insurance – you hope you’ll never have to use it, but it’s just a relief to have it there,” Wheeless said.
After his wife’s prompting, Wheeless sprang into action. The device led him through each step as crucial seconds ticked by. Simultaneously, a group of congregants formed an impromptu prayer circle and began earnestly praying. They needed a miracle.
Shock and awe
“It told me there was no heartbeat, so I asked Mrs. Gloria if she wanted me to shock him, and she said, ‘yes,’ so I did,” Wheeless said. “We had to do that two more times. Right after we shocked him the third time, the fire department arrived and took over. That’s when I heard Phil start talking. He wasn’t really sure where he was – but he was alive!”
“We were thankful … glad … joyous – but still in shock,” Wheeless explained.
“The first thing I remember when I started to wake up was hearing this voice in the distance hollering, ‘Sit me up! I can’t breathe,’ “Cook recalled. “At first it sounded far away, but it gradually got louder and louder … until I realized it was me! That is when I realized I was being loaded into an ambulance.”
Wheeless is reluctant to take any credit for saving his friend’s life. “We are not in the life-saving business – God is,” said Wheeless, a plumbing supplies dealer. “If we had not had the AED, or if Phil had gone home that night, the outcome could have been a lot different.”
Paying it forward
The incident deeply impacted the church. Later in October they paid for and presented an AED for First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), again through CHEF. “If I can use an AED successfully, anyone can,” Wheeless said. “If you have any kind of public gathering of people, an AED is just as valuable as fire extinguishers – or even more valuable. Buildings can be replaced, but with people, if that opportunity is missed, a life can be lost forever.”
Andrea Fleer, who leads Arkansas Blue Cross’ marketing team in Jonesboro, said Cook’s revival makes her team more committed to community involvement. “When we heard that a piece of equipment we had donated had saved a life, the overwhelming joy we felt was unbelievable. And the fact that the church ‘paid it forward’ to another congregation was just the icing on the cake.”
As for Cook, he feels extremely blessed.
“When I stop and think about the debt I owe my wife for what she did and how much my church folks love me and how God loves me and caused things to happen like they did, it just brings tears to my eyes,” he said. “I am just grateful to be alive.”