POULSBO — This is a true story about how strangers can become friends — and how knowing CPR can save lives.
On May 6, Susan Willis was choking to death on a bite of a tortilla wrap at the Poulsbo Garden Club’s annual plant sale at James Lumber on Viking Avenue.
She found the air to gasp out “choking!” to her friend, garden club president Lori Robinson, who called for help.
Bystanders David Frazier and Sandy Mead rushed to Willis, who was clinging to a chain link fence. Frazier got his arms around her, started to perform the Heimlich maneuver. But it was too late.
“Susan fell unconscious just before my first tug, and slid down on the gravel,” Frazier said.
Willis’ face had turned blue and she had stopped breathing, one bystander recalled.
Willis was dying right there on the gravel surrounded by horrified friends and strangers.
Lisa Whitcher, a short blonde with a warm smile and a drill sergeant’s handshake, is an LPN at Kaiser-Permanente and knew what to do.
“When she collapsed, I checked for a pulse and immediately started [doing chest] compressions,” Whitcher said. Kendra Bliss, an ER nurse at Harrison Hospital and a Poulsbo Garden club member was there, too.
“She took the position on the other side of Susan,” Frazier said. By this point a crowd had gathered and there were a lot of suggestions and comments and questions being thrown out, he said.
“Kendra explained that the latest advice on choking is to go immediately into CPR compressions after they lose consciousness. I stayed at Susan’s head, holding her airway open and speaking to the [Poulsbo Fire Department] dispatcher on the phone — I was the com person at that point. The dispatcher asked that the people doing the compressions count out loud, presumably so she could tell if the compressions were quick enough.” Frazier said, “One male bystander offered to help and said he’d done CPR before. He provided great relief when they switched out because the minutes that passed seemed like hours,” Frazier said.
The medics arrived within minutes. By then, her airway had been cleared, and Willis was begininng to respond. Medics loaded her into the ambulance and transported her to Harrison Hospital – Bremerton.
Frazier said, “What I learned about CPR during this emergency is the importance of experience, determination and quick response. These citizens jumped right in without delay and did some tremendous and very intentional compressions. After witnessing this performance, my advice to people administering CPR for the first time is to react immediately. Do ‘em like you mean ‘em!”
Honoring the heroes
On June 14, Poulsbo Fire Commissioners honored the heroes who saved Willis life. It was a joyful reunion, with hugs and tears and lots of Kleenex.
“You are my angels, my heroes,” said Willis. “You saved my life.”
“She’s a miracle. She survived,” said Whitcher.
“The early intervention was a key element in not only saving her life, but the fact that she didn’t appear to suffer any brain damage. Those by-standers kept the flow of blood to the brain, lungs, and other organs. They truly saved her life,” Poulsbo Fire Captain John Warnke said.
“Every day when I wake up now,” Willis said, “I remind myself that God didn’t give me another day because I needed it. He did it because someone needed me,” Willis said. “And I baked you two cakes. I didn’t know how else to say ‘thank you’.”
To learn more about Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), go to Handsonlycpr.org. To become certified in CPR and first aid, go to www.poulsbofire.org.
Poulsbo Fire Department Public Information officer Jody Matson contributed to this story.