PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Even though two months have passed, Sensei Mitch Wheeler and Sensei Jay Peavey still recall the last 10 minutes of a karate class they helped instruct on April 17.
During that time period, they weren’t sparring, ring-fighting or competing. They were helping to save a student’s life.
Both men, along with other instructors in the class and personnel from Crown Ambulance and The Aroostook Medical Center’s Critical Care Transport team, worked together to resuscitate David Stewart of Caribou, who suffered cardiac arrest during the karate class at the Zippel Elementary School gymnasium.
Present as instructors were Grandmaster Sensei William Graves, Sensei Jerod Kingsbury, Sensei Lucy Newbegin, Wheeler and Peavey.
Stewart was taking the class with his grandson, according to Wheeler, who said that Stewart seemed “fine” until the last 15 minutes of the class.
“I noticed that he was sweaty, but I just thought that it was because of what we had been doing in class,” Wheeler, a deputy with the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department, recalled during a recent interview. He said that he later noticed that Stewart was leaning up against the wall of the gym, as Graves had advised him to do because he had complained of feeling dizzy.
Peavey noticed this as well.
“When I saw him by the wall, I saw that his head was bobbing, and he kept trying to pick it back up,” said Peavey, who, like Wheeler, is a black belt. “When he dropped his head a third time, I knew something was not right, and I started running towards him. At the same time, Mitch had started to run towards him as well. We got to him about the same time, and I felt for a pulse in his wrist and Mitch felt for one in his neck, and we both pretty much said simultaneously, ‘I haven’t got a pulse.’”
Both men began administering CPR, with Wheeler doing chest compressions for approximately five minutes and Peavey keeping Stewart’s airway open. Kingsbury also jumped in to alternate with Wheeler on chest compressions. Both Wheeler and Peavey said that Graves asked the school custodian where the school’s automated external defibrillator was, since the life-saving machines have been required in K-12 schools since 2007.
“After we did the chest compressions, we had no pulse,” said Wheeler. “I hooked up the AED and it said to administer a shock to his heart, so I did. Then we got a pulse, but we lost it.”
Wheeler continued with chest compressions, Peavey said, until all of a sudden Stewart’s “color started coming back.”
“I told Mitch that I got a good pulse,” he said. “And then it became a great pulse. And then just as the [emergency medical services] guys came through the door, he started talking a bit. He obviously had no clue what was going on, but he was talking.”
EMTs from both Crown Ambulance and TAMC’s Critical Care Transport team took over care of Stewart upon arriving at the school and took him to the local hospital. Later that evening, he was transferred to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where he spent a few days before returning to Aroostook.
Both Wheeler and Peavey said that everyone who was present that night worked as a team in an effort to help revive Stewart, shelter his grandson from seeing what was happening or later provide support to Stewart’s family members at the hospital.
At the same time, Wheeler acknowledged that his heroic actions still caused him some pain. His father, Edgar Wheeler, a former Aroostook County sheriff who served four consecutive terms in the Legislature as a state representative, died of a sudden heart attack at age 65 in 2007.
“That did bring back a lot of those emotions around my dad’s death,” he said. “I went home and told my wife that I would rather be shot at than have to do that again.”
Stewart did not return calls from the BDN seeking comment about the incident, but said through a statement issued by TAMC that he did not remember much about that night other than feeling dizzy and then waking up in the hospital. He said he was grateful to the karate class instructors and members for taking care of him.
“If I was any other place than where I was, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.
Both Wheeler and Peavey said that Stewart has since returned to class, but cannot participate in all activities, and has expressed deep gratitude and appreciation for everyone involved in saving his life that night.
“I think we will all be really pleased when he can come back to class and fully participate,” said Peavey. “It will be really great to see.”