When your superhero is your friend

Adrian Owen and Matt Gilmartin are friends who work together in Matthew’s gym, Pure Tough, in Miramar, Wellington.  In early June, they were talking about life and things, when Matt let Adrian know that he had recently been diagnosed with a heart condition and was on medication. He said the thing he feared most was falling down at the gym when he was alone.   

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"Learn CPR. Adrian gave me back my husband; he gave my three-year-old daughter and five-year-old son back their father. We were so, so lucky to have Adrian there. I had no idea that the quality of CPR mattered – it is very sobering to recognise that if Matthew had been with me, I probably wouldn’t have been able to save him. The more of us who learn this skill, the safer the people around us are" - Shelley, Matt's wife

Fast forward to Saturday 23 June.  It is 1am and the pair are in the gym on their own, moving gear around, thinking about a different layout for the equipment.  Adrian says they had pretty much finished the job when he heard a crash. 

“There was this great ruckus.  I remember thinking ‘what the hell is that?’”

Adrian ran over to where Matt was working to find him on the floor convulsing.  “The noise I heard was him going down and taking some of the gear down with him.

“I gave him a couple of shakes, calling out his name.  He didn’t look good, and I couldn’t get any response.  ‘Oh shit’ was the feeling that comes to mind.”

From here Adrian says he went into auto pilot.  Having had lots of training as a Life Guard and now gym instructor, Adrian knows CPR, and knew exactly what to do.  

“I called 111.  Matt wasn’t breathing and I couldn’t get a pulse.  I started CPR straight away with my phone still under my ear until it fell and I put it on speaker.

“I got to work on compressions and breathing.  After a bit I remembered that the advice these days is to focus on the just the compressions, so that’s what I did.

“The woman on the phone was amazing.  She counted with me.  I was going a bit slow at one point so she counted and got me back into the right rhythm.  One and, two and, three and, and four, over and over.

“While I was doing CPR I was just thinking about his kids.  No way.  No way is this going to happen.”    

Adrian thinks it was about 10 minutes when Wellington Free Ambulance arrived followed by the Fire Service.   

“They told me to keep going while they got set up and cut his favourite green hoodie off.  It’s funny the things that go through your head - I remember thinking, ‘he’s not going to be very happy about that.’” 

Wellington Free Ambulance shift manager Mark Shakespeare and the paramedic team found Adrian doing everything exactly right to keep his friend with him. 

“Myself and the first ambulance to arrive got there within 30 seconds of each other,” says Mark. “On arrival Adrian was doing great CPR and we took over and started our interventions.

“We continued CPR for a long time, delivering 17 defibrillations during that time and multiple doses of medications.”

Mark moved between the arrest and Adrian keeping him informed of what they were doing and how Matt was.

“I remember telling Adrian that the outcome was looking pretty poor as we had been going for such a long time with little change,” says Mark.

“As a team we got to the point where we were considering ceasing CPR and were going through our checks—when it became apparent Matt had a heartbeat.

“Personally I was delighted, but very aware of how fragile he was at this stage.”

Throughout his ordeal, Matt’s wife Shelley was at home asleep with their two small children in bed beside her. 

She describes being startled from a deep sleep by the dogs barking, and then hearing someone knocking.  When she went to investigate, she saw two people wearing reflective vests standing at the front door.

“Seeing the reflective vests, and realising it was the police at the door, gave me a real shock,” says Shelley. “They told me that Matthew had collapsed in the gym. I asked, ‘Is he dead?’ and they said ‘No, but it is very serious.’”

One of the officers went next door to ask a neighbour to come and look after the children, while the other stayed with Shelley and told her they needed to rush her to the hospital.

“I remember this feeling of being so confused, and just kneeling on the floor as if somehow it was a safer place to be.  It was like a waking, walking nightmare,” Shelley says.

The next 24 hours for Shelley and her family were some of the hardest any of us will ever face. She recalls a blur of hoping for the best, and worrying about the worst, calling her family in New Zealand and Matt’s family in Scotland, and facing the fact their children might grow up without their dad. 

But then—the most unexpected of the unexpected began to happen. 

“I came out of the ICU on Sunday morning at 7am, and was asked to return at 10.30am,” Shelley says. “When I got back, Matt was showing some amazing signs of recovery; the doctors had taken out his tubes and he was breathing on his own. 

“Then he opened his eyes and he looked at me,” Shelley says.  “I was absolutely stunned. He was looking at me, communicating with me!

“I called Adrian.  ‘It’s really good, he’s coming back!’”

Wellington Free Ambulance paramedic Mark Shakespeare says that what Adrian did saved Matt’s life. 

“When I found out a couple of days later Matt was doing well in ICU, I couldn’t believe it. This is what we join to do—it’s the outcome we always wish for, but in reality rarely get to see,” says Mark.

“I popped up to see him in hospital. I said he looked better than the last time I had seen him, and he gave me a run-down of how he was feeling. I was able to tell him a few things about the night I had met him, and that Adrian had done all the hard work by keeping him oxygenated for us to do our best work with.”

Mark says that he told Matt that Adrian deserved a free membership to the gym for life. “In true business owner fashion Matt replied, ‘Let’s not be hasty, maybe a couple of weeks free!’

“It’s great to know he is doing well, and I’m just delighted that we were able to keep a family together.”

A few weeks after the event, Matt is truly in good health.  He’s had a defibrillator implanted into his chest which means he can’t do some of the things he used to do, but he’s alive, and he’s well. 

Shelley says that in the first few days, Matt’s short-term memory wasn’t very good and they kept having to remind him what had happened, and that he was in hospital. On the third night though, he gave Shelley his own explanation of what had happened. “I remember him saying to me: ‘Adrian lent me his armour, and when he took it off me, my chest was really sore.’ I couldn’t believe that was how his brain interpreted what had happened to him—and it was so accurate.”

To watch a video of Matt and Adrian and read the article from Stuff.co.nz click here.  

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