As they sit down to their Thanksgiving meal this Thursday, two Cuyahoga Falls families will bow their heads in gratitude for a bad sense of direction and the good that came from it.
The story began three months ago at a cross country practice on a late summer day. David Melchioris has two sons on the cross country team at St. Joseph School, Nicholas and Joseph. Daniela Ryan-Strausser's youngest daughter, Annika, is part of the same team. While the parents had seen each other at practices and exchanged pleasantries, little did they know their lives would soon be irrevocably linked due to a life-saving gesture in the nick of time.
"I wasn't even supposed to be there that day," emergency room nurse Ryan-Strausser recalls. Another mom was supposed to drive Ryan-Strausser's daughter and her own child to cross country; however, about an hour before practice was supposed to start, Ryan-Strausser got a phone call, asking her to drive the girls instead. She says she initially drove to the wrong place, and then had to call for directions when she got lost en route to Keyser Park. Her inclination at that point, she admits, was to skip practice all together, but when she suggested it, the girls wouldn't hear of it. When they arrived about 20 minutes late, Ryan-Strausser says she and the girls quickly took to the course, which meanders in and out of woods.
Coming down a hill, she noticed a man lying on the ground next to a child. Her initial thought, she says, was the guy was relaxing after completing a lap with his son. A lot of the parents run alongside their kids, Ryan-Strausser said, describing cross country training as "a bonding experience" for many St. Joe's families. However, as she got closer, she saw the man was "very pale, gray," and sweating profusely. He was "making gurgling noises," she says and slumped over, with his eyes rolling back. The frightened child ran off, as Ryan-Strausser called out to the unresponsive man.
"Automatically nurse mode hits," Ryan-Strausser says, "and I screamed for someone to call 9-1-1. Then I checked for a pulse -- and there wasn't any -- so I started doing chest compressions." Alone with the man in a fairly remote area of the path, Ryan-Strausser says adrenaline kicked in as time seemed to stand still. "This man's life was in my hands," she says, "and I just wanted him to respond." None of the people alerted by her screams knew cardiopulmonary resuscitation, so Ryan-Strausser was on her own. She estimates she performed CPR for five or six minutes, maybe longer, before a coach, who'd been back at the soccer field arrived, alerted by the commotion. Retired firefighter Dennis Roberts took over rescue breathing while Ryan-Strausser continued the chest compressions.
"His pulse came back a couple of times," she says, "but then I'd lose it again." Ryan-Strausser says she knew death could occur in a matter of minutes in cases of sudden cardiac arrest. Discouraged, but not giving up, the pair continued CPR until paramedics from the Cuyahoga Falls Fire Department arrived. They revived the man by shocking his heart back into rhythm. Then he was whisked to Summa Western Reserve Hospital and then transferred to Akron City, where he underwent quadruple bypass surgery.
"It was both the most exhilarating, but the most scary thing I've ever done in my life," Ryan-Strausser says. "I went to my car and cried."
Melchioris, 56, says he "wasn't a serious runner, by any means" although he'd completed a lap around the perimeter of Keyser Park with his older son. With high blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as a family history of heart disease, Melchioris was determined to get into better shape. Jogging alongside his sons seemed a natural way to do that, he says.
"I told him, 'Joe, I'm slowing you down, go on without me,'" Melchioris says, "So he kept running and I stopped. In the meantime I saw my other son and I stopped to talk to him and I don't remember anything after that. The next thing I know I'm in a speeding ambulance being told my heart had stopped."
Dr. Robert Baranek, a cardiothoracic surgeon with Summa Cardiovascular Institute, says Melchioris had a total blockage of his right coronary artery and at least a 75 percent blockage in three others, including his left main artery. Baranek says the condition in Melchioris's left main artery is nicknamed in medical circles as "a widow-maker," due to the likelihood of dying from it.
"He (Melchioris) would not be here, but for the quick intervention," Baranek says. "It, quite simply, saved his life."
Before his surgery Ryan-Strausser visited Melchioris at the hospital. As a former cardiac nurse, she was able to brief him on what to expect and to lessen many of his fears. He's since completed cardiac rehab and has returned to work in a tool and die shop. "I'm feeling better little by little," he says, adding, "Thanks to Daniela, I'll be around for cross country next year and many years to come."
"Next year, you might not be able to keep up with me," he teased Ryan-Strausser last week.
Since that day in the woods, Ryan-Strausser shared her concern about the need for more CPR-certified parents with St. Joe's athletic director. She says Principal Dr. Patricia Nugent quickly scheduled a CPR training session for teachers, coaches and parents.
"A huge amount of people were CPR-certified as a result of what happened to Mr. Melchioris," Ryan-Strausser says, adding, "It will do us all good to have more CPR-trained people on the sidelines."
"I'm happy I'm still here," Melchioris says, "and I'm happy Daniela was there. An unexpected guardian angel, I guess."
"I think God places miracles in our lives," Ryan-Strausser says. "And while I wasn't supposed to be there that day, He made sure I was. When I was lost and late, it wasn't an accident at all -- it was all a part of God's plan."
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