Firefighter saves next-door neighbor’s life from heart attack

kjahner@newsobserver.comFebruary 4, 2014 

Tim Rooks


— In July, Virginia Sission heard Jaye Sisson say the words “I do.” Just a few months later in October, she was standing in the Cleveland home the couple had moved into last Valentines Day. With Jaye upstairs, the Emergency Medical Services responder said words to her with a different type of power, a power just as potent.

“If we get a pulse on him we will transport him to WakeMed.”

Jaye Sisson returned to work for AT&T on Jan. 22 and Virginia won’t likely spend their first anniversary a widow. It may be impossible to say what exactly saved his life and prevented long-term brain damage associated with the kind of heart attack he had. Any of a number of medical advances in treatment of cardiac arrest deployed likely helped.

But without Garner Fire Department’s Tim Rooks beating everyone to the scene from his house next door, it may not have mattered.

“I thank him every time I see him. If it wasn't for him I definitely wouldn't be here. He's our hero,” Sisson said, also heaping praise on yet another firefighter in the neighborhood – Cleveland’s J.D. Howell – who also beat emergency responders to the scene.

Rooks said he and his neighbor spent time together grilling out among other typical neighborly activities. He was presented with the Medical Life Saving Award at the Garner Volunteer Fire and Rescue banquet in December. He said it’s not the first time he’s deployed life-saving training, but the eight-year veteran said it was the first time he’s had to do so off-duty.

“The recognition is nice but it means much more to see Jaye able to spend time with his family. That’s why we do what we do,” Rooks said.

Sisson’s wife said Rooks was being modest.

“He's a very very humble guy, he deserves more than he’ll get,” she said.


Sisson went up to bed on Oct. 23 before finishing dinner, complaining of heartburn as Virginia and her 15-year-old son Jordan – Sisson’s step-son – finished up. The problem dogging him for several months wasn’t anything new to the family. But Virginia and Jordan had never before heard the sound that came from upstairs about 15 minutes later.

“We heard this noise, gasping for air, gurgling. It was awful, I'd never heard it,” she said. She also said she immediately knew what was happening.

The sight upstairs was little better: “His eyes, they were open, it was like he was staring at me, but he had this look that he was not there, and his body was frozen stiff and he was still making that noise.”

Virginia frantically called 911. Jordan, meanwhile, ran next door for emergency expertise that wouldn’t take so long. Rooks ran upstairs and took the phone from the victim’s panicked wife. Quickly he made the situation clear to EMS. Rooks started with chest compressions to move the blood. Howell was called and arrived not long after with a defibrillator.

During the chaos, Virginia said he noticed his face turning blue and told Rooks “He’s not breathing.”

“Tim looks and points with a finger, doesn’t say anything, like get her out of here,” Virginia said. Tim’s wife Lynn escorted her downstairs. The two firefighters shocked Sisson a few times before EMS arrived.

It took them several minutes, but eventually they found a pulse. When they wheeled Sisson out, Virginia said his eyes were still glazed. She said she didn’t think he knew she was there, and he said he doesn’t remember anything in about a three-day window after going upstairs with heartburn.

Rooks drove Virginia and Jordan to WakeMed. Virginia remembers holding Jordan’s hand between the seat, but little else from the somber car ride.

The brain going without blood for a matter of minutes can cause brain damage, so even with a pulse, the battle for Sisson’s life had just started. He remained in intensive care unit for nearly a week, until Oct. 29 – Jordan’s birthday.

But by Nov. 2, Sisson started coming around and Virginia believed he would pull through. On Sunday, still in and out and under medication, he kept saying he had to go to work. He also kept saying his shin hurt which confused Virginia at first, but that ultimately made sense: emergency workers had used a technique where they drill a hole in shinbone to get needed fluids into the body at a time blood vessels are tougher to find.

As quickly as he recovered, so did his sense of humor. He began giving Tim a hard time for hurting his chest, Virginia said.

Later on, his wife said he had been popping Tums like crazy during the lead-up to the heart attack. She said the couple was watching television when a Tums ad came on, touting the ails the tablets can relieve.

“‘You know what Tums doesn’t prevent,’” Virginia told Jaye. “He looked at me halfway grinned, and said ‘Heart attack?’”

Virginia said she’d learned a lot about the heart through the ordeal. The family intends to work on lifestyle and eating habits, and of course, be more vigilant for signals. After all, the nurses at the hospital told them they liked seeing Sisson walk out of their unit.

“The survival rate for the type of heart attack he had was very slim,” she said.

For Sisson, it was higher because he had a fast-acting neighbor who knew just what to do.


Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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