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December 25, 2011

Death of infant brother inspired Ga. EMT: 'One day, I'll save someone'

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — Some things are just too much to comprehend in a moment, much less in months. So on the morning of last July 4, about 50 yards from the finish of the AJC Peachtree Road Race, when runner Jim Kurtz opened his eyes and felt hands on his chest, he had to ask.

"What are you doing?" he said.

"Sir, I'm doing CPR," said Marci Searles, a 30-year-old EMT.

"On who?" he asked.

"On you," she said.

Searles was almost as startled as he was. Kurtz, 55, had been in cardiac arrest when she arrived on the scene on her bike, pursuing shouts of "Somebody's down." He had no pulse, so she'd attached her defibrillator and started chest compressions while it calibrated.

"Advise shock," it flashed. So she activated the machine, shocked him and resumed chest compressions. That's when Kurtz woke up.

Normally, patients are unconscious long after Searles has gotten them into an ambulance, to the hospital and turned over to ER doctors. She typically finds out if a patient lives if she gets a notice in her mailbox, recognizing she saved a life.

But here Kurtz was looking her in the eye. And making a joke. "I didn't see Jesus. Does that mean I'm going to hell?" Kurtz had said. He asked her if he was going to get his Peachtree Road Race T-shirt.

Five months later, after quadruple bypass surgery and a second lease on life, Kurtz is still not sure how to make sense of it. How was it that his ticking time bomb of a heart, which doctors told him was nearly blocked in all four main arteries, went off in one place teeming with defibrillator-packing emergency personnel?

"I was there for the taking and they didn't take me," Kurtz said. "So there must be something that I'm still supposed to do."

He thought about the movie "Pay it Forward," where a kid's school project to help three people if they agree to help three others goes viral. But after a while, grandiose ideas gave way to the stresses of daily life and returning to his job as a real estate agent.

Kurtz focused on doing little things, like picking up a driver who ran out of gas on I-285. But he did deeds like that long before he had his heart attack. How much of a difference could he really make?

Maybe he already has.

As it just so happened, Kurtz was in the right place at the right time for Searles that morning, too. The marvel for him was: "of all the places to be," with nearly 175 medical staffers working the race. For Searles, it was: "of all the EMTs" to come upon Kurtz. She was one of about 16 on bikes that day.

She'd dreamed of saving lives since she couldn't save her own infant brother. But her hopes for becoming a doctor and changing the world were dimming.

"It brought back a purpose in my life," she said.

'A purpose for me'

When Searles tells her story, she traces it back from Tenth Street to Thailand, where she grew up the daughter of missionary parents.

She said she first learned CPR when she was 13, after her parents adopted a premature baby named Michael. He was born despite his mother's attempt at an abortion, weighing less than two pounds. Searles' parents, who had six children of their own, knew his health problems made his chances at adoption otherwise slim.

Marci and her brothers and sisters took shifts, taking care of babies in the ward at the hospital next to their parents' home, especially the forgotten ones like Michael. He was in her arms one day when his face started to turn blue.

A nurse's three words, "You killed him", still echo in Searles' mind.

She put the baby down and started compressions with her fingers, like she'd seen them do. The nurse took the baby and, using a bag valve mask, revived him. But when Michael was five months old and living at their home, he died in his sleep. It was too late by the time Searles heard her mother scream "No!" about 7 a.m. that morning.

She ran barefoot in her nightgown to the hospital to get help, but the policemen she rode back with on mopeds said he'd been long gone.

It was only years later, when Searles described the scenario to a doctor friend, that she deduced Michael had likely died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDs), not from anything she had done or not done.

Before the funeral at the Searles' home, Marci sat at the piano with Michael's small casket by her side. Like she'd done to lull him to sleep many times before, she played the Song of St. Francis. "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith ..."

She was crying by the time she finished.

"I just remembered thinking, 'I could not save this little one.' And it hurt so bad," Searles said. "I will be a doctor one day ... I am going to give dignity to those that don't have dignity. Maybe one day, I'll save someone."

She came to the United States 10 years ago and paid her way through Georgia State by working as an EMT at Grady Memorial Hospital on weekends. She lives in Peachtree City with a family she met through church, which helps her maintain her goal of staying out of debt.

She earned her undergraduate degree last year in social work, with a minor in chemistry. She applied to three medical schools and was granted interviews at all three. But she wasn't accepted after they told her they weren't impressed with her English scores. They didn't know English was her third language, after Thai and Lao.

Her resolve was renewed, though, the morning she met Kurtz.

"The joy of being able to see somebody come back to life ... it's exhilarating," she said. "It's a joy. It's like 'Yes, there's a purpose for me to be here.'"

Searles is taking upper level science classes at Clayton State and has reapplied to medical school at Morehouse and the Medical College of Georgia. She's re-taking the MCAT in April.

In the meantime, she's traveling with a medical team to Cameroon, Africa, in January. She dreams of going back to the Third World as a doctor, specializing in infectious diseases.

"Six percent of the world's population is in America and 70 percent of the world's medical resources," she said. "My heart is to go to other parts of the world that don't have the medical saturation."

She, like many of her medic friends, believes in the power of changing one life at a time. They loved hearing her and Asher Morris, the paramedic who joined her in Kurtz's rescue, tell the story in a post-race meeting with other bike EMTs.

Searles always goes back to the "Starfish Story."

Originally written by Loren Eisley, it's the story of the boy on the beach, throwing starfish that have washed up back into the ocean. A man walking by laughs at him, saying there are miles of beach and hundreds of fish, and no way can he make a difference. The boy bends down, picks up another starfish and throws it into the ocean.

Smiling, he says: "I made a difference for that one."

"I'd be daisy food'

Searles lost a brother but she saved another for Kurtz's eight brothers and sisters.

Three of them --- Jim, Ken and Pam --- were running the Peachtree that day as part of a family tradition. They didn't worry much at first when Jim didn't show up at the "K" marker in Piedmont Park. They'd all run at their own pace and Jim was toward the back. Besides he was always a "free bird," as Ken calls him. "He might have been out monkeying with some girls," Ken Kurtz said.

Eventually, they figured something was wrong and began searching medical tents. Ken's heart sank, watching his wife Kim, a family practice physician, talk to the doctor in charge and learn of Jim's heart attack.

"You can see her expressions change and get worse," said Ken, who reunited with his brother at Emory Hospital.

The Kurtzes are grateful. They know how fortunate they are it didn't happen the week before, at their niece's high school graduation in Michigan, when Jim was playing volleyball in the yard. Or the day before the race, when they were swimming and tubing at Lake Lanier.

"I'd be daisy food," Kurtz said.

He's lost 25 pounds and hopes to lose 20 more. It has been hard cutting his cholesterol, eating right and exercising. He gets plenty of encouragement from his siblings, who call so regularly to check up he figures they've planned the schedule out.

Kurtz walked and jogged a one-mile fun run earlier this month at the Frosty 5K in Dahlonega. He hopes to run the Peachtree in July and make the finish this time.

No one will be pulling harder than Searles.

"I've been praying for him," she said.

Copyright 2011 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution