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Troopers, new machine triumph over death

Friday, July 06, 2001

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Barely an hour into his shift Tuesday morning, state Trooper Isaac N. Lanham IV knew he was getting too sick to finish a day of patrols around Westmoreland County.

His head pounded. His chest hurt. His stomach churned until he pulled his patrol car to the side of a road and threw up. Too nauseated to keep driving, Lanham tracked down a supervisor and received permission to leave early.

Cpl. Chris Karnes, right, talks with Trooper Donald Terek about the Automated External Defibrillator -- on the table next to Karnes -- used to save the life of fellow Trooper Isaac Lanham IV. Karnes and other troopers were about to take Lanham to the hospital when Lanham collapsed at the Greensburg state police barracks. Terek trains troopers at the barracks in the use of the defibrillator. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

But as he was about to leave the Greensburg state police station, Lanham's heart stopped beating and he abruptly slumped to the floor. Paramedics and physicians later told the 31-year-old Belle Vernon resident that he likely would have died before reaching a hospital if other troopers had not repeatedly restarted his heart, using a new portable defibrillator that arrived in the station barely a month ago.

"It was pretty tense. I know I died there a couple of times," Lanham said yesterday from his bed in Westmoreland Hospital, where he is in serious condition. "There's no doubt in my mind that those men and that equipment saved my life."

The state police announced last year that they would install about 70 portable defibrillators in stations around Pennsylvania and would train all troopers and state liquor-enforcement officers to use the $2,659 devices. But because that has been an ongoing process, it has taken time for all stations to receive the devices and for troopers to be trained.

The defibrillators can be used in the stations, where panicky people often seek help for injuries or in crises, or can be taken out on emergency calls, said Capt. Frank Monaco, who commands the Greensburg station. As they acquire more defibrillators, state police officials said they eventually may place the devices in cars.

State police officials said they believe Lanham's case may have been the first time troopers used one of the new devices to save a life.

Cpl. Thomas J. O'Connor, one of the troopers who aided Lanham, was trained to use the device June 19; another of the troopers, Cpl. Robert Stauffer, was trained last week.

"Had this happened a few weeks ago before the equipment was here and the men were trained, God knows what would have happened," Monaco said. "It was certainly money well spent. You don't expect the life you save to be one of your own, but I'm just very happy that all the pieces fell into place."

Lanham, who is married and has been a trooper since 1995, said he didn't feel well when he got up Tuesday. But he thought he could tough it out through the day. By the time he slid behind the wheel of his cruiser at 6 a.m, however, he wasn't so sure.

"I got more and more nauseated until I got to where I was a little afraid to be out there by myself," he said, adding that his chest felt as if a steel girder had been pounded through it.

By the time he drove back to Greensburg and changed out of his uniform, he was dizzy and weak. O'Connor, who is his supervisor, came in to check on him and found him in the basement locker room, sweating so profusely that his T-shirt was soaked.

O'Connor and Cpl. Christopher Karnes both urged Lanham to go to a doctor or hospital. Lanham balked, saying he didn't want to be a bother and just wanted to go home. While they talked, Trooper Rusty Hays, who also has paramedic training,, checked Lanham's pulse and found it was unusually low.

Despite Lanham's continued protests, the others troopers prodded him until he agreed to be driven to the Westmoreland Hospital emergency room.

They were walking with Lanham up the stairs to the back door when, without warning, his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell over.

"[Lanham] is a young, healthy guy and an excellent, active trooper, so you're not expecting him to have a full-blown heart attack," said O'Connor. "But he's not breathing or responding to us, and I'm thinking 'Oh my God, he's going to die here.' "

The troopers positioned Lanham's head so that his mouth and airway were open. While they worked, they were aided by Stauffer, who'd just finished a night shift and walked into their midst.

Hays ran to his car, fetched his own bag-valve mask and began pumping air into Lanham's lungs. Karnes felt for a pulse. O'Connor yelled for someone to call 911 and to bring the new defibrillator.

Taking turns, O'Connor and Stauffer shocked Lanham three times. Each time, Lanham's heart and breathing resumed but stopped again moments later.

Paramedics from the Mutual Aid ambulance service arrived within six minutes and shocked Lanham's faltering heart twice more before rushing him to an ambulance. Troopers and police in Greensburg escorted the ambulance, briefly blocking intersections along its route to the hospital.

Lanham's heart stopped four more times along the way and in the hospital parking lot. Inside, physicians determined that his pulmonary artery was totally blocked in one place and about 70 percent blocked in another.

Doctors used balloon angioplasty to open the artery, then implanted stents, or small, spring-like devices, to keep it open. Lanham, who doesn't remember much between hitting the ground and coming to in the hospital, said doctors have told him that his body produces excess cholesterol, which caused the blockages.

Lanham, who expects to be discharged this weekend, has not been trained to use the defibrillator but said he intends to do so as soon as he can return to duty. He said he hopes to repay his "debt of gratitude" to his colleagues by, in turn, using the device to save other lives.

"I know this will be needed a lot of times in the rural areas we serve," O'Connor said. "This is one of the best pieces of equipment the state police ever bought. They've given us the tools to do our job. Now we have this tool to save lives, too."

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