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December 5, 2011

Pa. paramedics, man they saved reunite year later

By Rick Wills
Pittsburgh Tribune Review

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Six days before last Christmas, Jay Gebhardt collapsed into a store shelf at a Downtown 7-Eleven store, then spent 10 days in an induced coma in UPMC Mercy.

On Saturday -- almost a year later -- Gebhardt, his family and four Pittsburgh paramedics met under better circumstances, next to a giant Christmas tree in a Downtown hotel lobby.

"It's pretty emotional for me. I never got a chance to meet them until now. This is better than Christmas. This is what Christmas really should be about," Gebhardt said of his meeting with the paramedics, whom he credits with saving his life when he went into cardiac arrest.

The 50-year-old machinist from Valparaiso, Ind., has roots in Pittsburgh, where he lived until he was 7. He was in town on Dec. 19 with his two brothers to attend the Steelers-New York Jets game.

His critical medical condition was complicated by the fact that he and his family live hundreds of miles away from where he got sick.

"I found myself 500 miles from home, away from my children and in a cardiovascular intensive care unit in Pittsburgh, holding the hand of my unresponsive husband while he fought for his life," said Susie Brown Gebhardt, his wife.

Reunions between people who survive life-and-death situations and paramedics are unusual, especially when a situation involves someone like Gebhardt, who lives hours away, said Robert J. McCaughan, chief of the bureau of emergency medical services for the city of Pittsburgh.

"This doesn't happen often enough, even with people who live here in town," McCaughan said.

After he returned home, Gebhardt recuperated for 10 weeks. He and his wife wanted to meet the paramedics they credit for saving his life, and the reunion came after months of e-mails between McCaughan and Susie Brown Gebhardt.

"This reunion is something they really wanted to happen," McCaughan said.

The paramedics who responded to Jay Gebhardt were Stacey Yaras, Dawn Matteo, Matt Shoemaker and Keith Singleton. Each embraced the Gebhardts when they met them in the lobby of the Omni William Penn Hotel.

"It really makes the job worth it. We just never get a chance to do this," Yaras said.

When they arrived at the convenience store, Gebhardt wasn't breathing and his heart wasn't beating. They were able to restore a pulse before they took him to the hospital.

Out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is a leading cause of death with a survival rate of only about 5 percent, according to the American Heart Association.

Cardiac arrest can be reversed if it's treated within a few minutes with an electric shock to the heart to restore a normal heartbeat. Brain death and permanent death starts just four to six minutes after cardiac arrest.

A victim's chances of survival are reduced by 7 percent to 10 percent with every minute that passes.

The work of a paramedic is fast-paced and demands rapid decisions that often make the difference between life and death. Yet each of the four paramedics seems to downplay the job's responsibility and importance.

"This was just part of the job that day," said the soft-spoken Shoemaker, who added that he became a paramedic "because I always liked helping people."

Copyright 2011 Tribune Review Publishing Company

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