Seven days in the grave: A Sailor's survival

by Staff Sgt. Derek VanHorn, 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Misawa Air Base

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- He was just four days away from a trip home to surprise his mom and dad for Christmas in McMinnville, Tennessee -- his small hometown buried in the state's rolling foothills. He had planned the trip secretly with the help of his brother, and they laughed on the phone together a few hours before his life took a terrifying turn for the worst.

"Everything I did that day was so totally routine ... that's what blows my mind," said U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class Clint Medley. "The next thing I know I'm waking up in a hospital."

That was seven days later. Seven days after his heart stopped beating for 11 minutes and seven days after nearly choking to death on his own vomit.

"The whole week is a blank for me," Medley said.

Medley doesn't remember going to the gym the day it happened. He was an avid runner who worked out for fun. The gym was the last place he imagined he would challenge death face-to-face.

But what Medley doesn't remember, Senior Airman Christian Silva does.

Silva threw on some workout clothes and headed to lift weights before working the night shift. As an aerospace medical technician, he was scheduled to report to the base hospital for a routine shift at 6 p.m.

In what might be considered a lucky twist of fate, Silva's trip to the gym turned from a trip of leisure to one of heroism, even though he'd humbly tell you otherwise. While walking into the gym, he ran into a friend, Cory Greise, and they discussed what they were each going to work out that day.

"Because of that conversation, he knew where to find me," Silva said. "I guess that was lucky."

A lot of things were lucky that day, and only minutes later, Silva heard Greise's screaming voice from across the gym.

"Silva, get over here!" Greise yelled, waving him in his direction.

Silva sprinted to the adjacent cardio room and immediately saw Medley lying lifeless and unconscious on the gym's cold floor. As a panicked crowd surrounded him, only confusion filled the air.

"I asked around and no one knew what happened; they only saw him collapse," he said.

Silva tapped Medley's shoulders and talked to him, desperate for a sign of life.

"There was no response," Silva said. "I noticed he had no pulse and wasn't breathing, so I asked for an Automated External Defibrillator."

Silva instantaneously began performing CPR as a Japanese national helped apply the AED pads, allowing Silva to continue chest compressions uninterrupted. After three rounds of CPR, the AED advised a shock and Silva gave it.

"His body just kind of jolted," Silva said, "so I continued CPR and giving mouth-to-mouth breaths."

Just as the AED was advising a second shock, the 35th Medical Group's Urgent Care Center team arrived. Silva administered the shock and then set up an oxygen and pocket mask while Airman 1st Class Coley Kicklighter started a round of chest compressions.

"The UCC Airmen did what they do best - O2, long spine board, suction," Silva said. "Everyone was moving like machines."

Despite their feverous efforts, Silva and his team were still unable to get a pulse. Silva relentlessly administered CPR and applied a third shock to Medley. By this time, hope was dwindling fast -- it had been minutes since anyone had seen a movement out of Medley.

"Finally, he gasped," Silva said. "I don't know about anyone else, but damn I was relieved."

Medley unconsciously panted for air as firefighters briskly tossed aside treadmills and cardio machines to clear the path to the ambulance. Meanwhile, Silva again instinctively snapped into action and assumed driving duties, bringing Medley and two assisting technicians to the UCC, where a Code Blue - warning of a patient requiring immediate resuscitation -- had already been alerted.

"They were ready for us," Silva said. "We handed him off and knew they'd take good care of him."

The first person to receive Medley was Maj. Jay Fedorowicz, a 35th MDG surgeon who specializes in procedures in the head and neck region. Fedorowicz is prudent and passionate, and was overwhelmingly the perfect man for the job.

"He was really the second person to save my life," Medley thought back, shaking his head in gratitude.

As Medley was in route, all Fedorowicz was told was that a patient dropped to the floor, didn't have a heartbeat and was coming soon.

"And when he showed up, he was having seizures and vomiting," he said.

Fedorowicz said Medley didn't have enough oxygen cycling to his brain, and that the complications forced him to make a rare medical move. By this time, Medley's face was purple and lifeless.

"He was dead already," Fedorowicz said, "so my next move was to cut his throat - I had to cut open his neck ... that's the last resort."

What Fedorowicz was forced to perform was called a cricothyrotomy, where he executed a vertical incision on the skin of the neck just below Medley's "Adam's apple," and then another transverse incision in the cricothyroid membrane so he could insert a tube into this opening, creating a pathway for breathing.

It was the second time in Fedorowicz's career he's performed it, a rarity in itself. He said most surgeons probably won't perform a single one their entire lifetime.

"I put the tube in and started to resuscitate him," he continued. "He was fortunate - God was with him, and he came back."

But coming "back" was only minor respite for the medical staff; it merely meant Medley wouldn't die in their presence. Fedorowicz knew Medley was without oxygen for an extended period of time and had a long fight ahead of him.

"I really didn't think he was going to survive," Fedorowicz conceded. "I thought he was going to be brain-dead ... it was totally out of our control."

With all the signs looking grim, no one really knew what would happen next. Medley was transported to a local, larger hospital in the Japanese city of Hachinohe, where doctors could do nothing but hope and wait. Then finally, out of nowhere, after more than 150 hours of lifeless, assisted breathing and the evaporation nearly 20 pounds, Medley came back to life.

"I just woke up and asked for a new pillow," Medley smiled. "I remember asking in Japanese for the nurse to please exchange my pillow -- the old one was really uncomfortable.

"The look on the nurse's face ... she just looked surprised and asked if I knew Japanese," he said.

Medley had studied Japanese since arriving at Misawa, and it paid off at the most opportune time.

"They were surprised I made it," Medley said of the nurses, "but they knew my brain had survived because I was speaking a second language."

The Hachinohe nurses weren't the only ones taken back, and it took Fedorowicz a moment to process the news, as only a week earlier he'd witnessed Medley in a deteriorating condition.

"They called me and said 'your patient is ready to go home,'" Fedorowicz said. "I replied, 'what do you mean he's ready to go home!?'

"That was the moment I knew everything was going to be fine," he said.

In the end, doctors called it cardiac arrest, and have since administered dozens of tests with more to come. Medley's heart stopped beating for four minutes and seven minutes at separate times, and he said most medics who treated him that week told him they thought he was dead. He's also not sure how his brain fought through the trauma, but he couldn't be more thankful it did.

It's been eight months since the 8-year veteran cheated death, and not a day goes by where he doesn't reflect on his second chance.

"Every day is such a precious, unrepeatable gift," Medley said. "If there are things going wrong in your life, tomorrow is another chance to fix it."

Take it from someone who's been there. He knows he never could have made it without the selfless help of others and often finds himself at a literal loss for words when trying to express his gratitude. He's since moved on from his days of working launch and recovery of Navy aircraft after being medically separated, and with the help of a defibrillator, continues to grow stronger every day, always cognizant of his past.

"I used to worry about such little, insignificant and irrelevant things," Medley said. "Now I just do the best I can at everything I do and pray about it every day."

No one will ever know what was going through Medley's head amidst all the chaos, and he says he doesn't want to remember. Instead, he says he's focused on the future - one made possible by a team of complete professionals who were cool under pressure.

"I never wondered if he was going to survive," Silva said. "I was just focused on what my hands were doing and repeating in my head what step I needed to take next."

Fedorowicz echoed the sentiment, praising the team atmosphere of Misawa's medical team.

"Our job is to save lives; this is nothing uncommon," Fedorowicz said. "This is what we do in our training. I didn't do this alone -- I could never have done this alone. We have a team here that pulled together and saved his life."

Medley eventually made it back to Misawa after a few trips across the globe visiting medical centers for further testing, but there was one reunion he couldn't wait for, one that truly came from the heart.

"The first time I talked to Silva, I was trying to talk through a breathing mask, so I don't even know if he heard me," Medley said. "But I told him 'thank you so much for what you did for me; from this moment until the day I die, I will never forget you.'"

It probably won't be a surprise this time around, but Medley doesn't care -- this year, he'll be home for Christmas. And if things go as expected, he'll have another reason to celebrate life, as he and his girlfriend are set to have a baby boy in December.

As Medley welcomes new life into the world, it only felt right to pay tribute to the person who helped save his own.

He already has his son's name picked out - he'll call him Christian.

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