His heart stopped for more than 30 minutes. How can he still be alive?

Théoden Janes
The Charlotte Observer (TNS)
John Ogburn embraces Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Officer Nikolina Bajic. Bajic was one of two officers who first responded when Ogburn went into cardiac arrest at the Panera Bread restaurant in Cotswold Village late last month. (Alex Kormann/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — John Ogburn doesn’t remember a single thing about Monday, June 26.

He doesn’t remember waking up that morning, or helping prepare breakfast for his three young children, or kissing his wife Sarabeth goodbye, or any of the meetings he had with landscape design clients. He doesn’t remember driving to the Panera Bread in Cotswold Village. He doesn’t remember going to his favorite booth in the back, where he regularly sat for hours doing work on his laptop.

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He doesn’t remember crumpling to the floor at about quarter past 4, his heart gone completely, terrifyingly still.

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He doesn’t remember any of the many, many things that happened next. But in the two and a half weeks since, he’s come to understand this: If a single one of those things “didn’t happen correctly,” he says, “it could have gone differently pretty quickly.”

And John Ogburn would be dead.

‘It was a bad situation. It was really bad':

April Bradley was just starting her shift that afternoon as a delivery driver for Panera Bread. She went to clock in after grabbing a drink cup for her brother, who headed to the dining room to fill it but quickly returned to tell her that someone was passed out in the back of the restaurant.

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When they got to Ogburn, whom she immediately recognized as a regular, he was splayed out on the carpet and “his face was just like — ooooooo,” she shivers at the thought. “Dark purple — it was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.” She picked up the phone and dialed 911, at 4:17 p.m.

The response to the call came faster than anyone could have imagined.

Maybe a football field away, Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Officer Lawrence Guiler had just finished tending to a minor accident and was in his cruiser about to get back on the road.

“I was leaving that report, made the left in the Harris Teeter parking lot, and the call came out for a male in cardiac arrest at the Panera Bread,” Guiler says. “I look up, and the Panera Bread is right there. So, immediately, I just told our dispatch, ‘Hey, I’m right here, put me on the call,’ and I went in to find him on the ground.”

“It was a bad situation. It was really bad.”

And Guiler should know. Before joining CMPD four years ago as an officer, he was an EMT in the Durham, N.C., area — which made him an ideal person to be the first of the first responders.

Guiler couldn’t find a pulse and established that Ogburn wasn’t breathing, so he began CPR. He estimates that the amount of time that passed between him getting the call and him starting life-saving efforts was “probably around 20 to 30 seconds.”

About 30 seconds after Guiler arrived on the scene, another CMPD officer rushed into the restaurant.

“Coincidentally, I was already dispatched to a second accident in the same parking lot in Cotswold, which generally doesn’t happen very often – the same time, the same parking lot,” says Nikolina Bajic, a native of Croatia who ended up in Kosovo as a war refugee, immigrated to this country, and has been a police officer in Charlotte since 2006.

So within roughly 30 seconds of April Bradley calling 911, Ogburn was receiving CPR from someone who’d had a whole lot more experience administering CPR than the average police officer, much less the average person, and within about a minute, another officer was there to help.

The officers agree it was a highly unusual situation — that Medic or Charlotte Fire Department personnel almost always get there first and start CPR, and that police typically are tasked with securing the scene, or directing traffic.

How unusual?

In 11 years as a police officer, Bajic says, “I’ve never had to do this.”

'Nobody wanted to give up on him':

The officers say a woman in the restaurant who identified herself as a nurse offered to assist, “and she definitely did,” Guiler says. “She didn’t do chest compressions, but she was helping me try and monitor his pulse, see if he was starting to respond.” (Bajic says they never got her name.)

A few minutes later, four Charlotte firefighters from Station 14’s B Shift arrived, opened up Ogburn’s airway, and fitted him with an oxygen mask, says Medic spokesman Lester Oliva.

They also began taking turns with the officers performing CPR – and again, it’s rare that police start CPR, much less continue once Fire and Medic arrive. Each person went at it for roughly two minutes at a time.

Firefighters also used a defibrillator to deliver a shock that they hoped might restart his heart.

It didn’t.

Medic arrived at 4:26 p.m., say its records, and life-saving efforts continued as paramedic Benjamin Shaw and EMT Brittany Harris expanded the CPR rotation to eight.

Two hundred compressions, switch off. Two hundred compressions, switch off. Two hundred compressions, switch off. (Says Guiler: “It was hot in the Panera Bread, we’re all doing compressions, which is very strenuous. … The teamwork was everything.”)

Medic shocked Ogburn with the AED again. And again. And again. They gave him a shot of epinephrine, which aims to return the heart to a normal rhythm. Then another. Then another.

Nothing. No response. No pulse. No breathing. No sign of life. At this point, more than 20 minutes have gone by.

“Me and my brother were (watching) and we were like, ‘There’s no way that this guy is gonna live through this,’ ” says April Bradley, the Panera employee. “And I thought even if he did come back, he’d be brain-dead.”

Bajic admits they were not optimistic by the time they passed the half-hour mark.

“(We figured) he’s not gonna come back, because – that long to be without pulse, generally it doesn’t end well,” she says.

But they kept on.

Adds Bajic: “Nobody wanted to give up on him.”

'We don't know what's going to happen':

Around 4:30 p.m., while Ogburn was on the floor of the Panera Bread receiving CPR from eight first responders, his iPhone started ringing.

It was his wife, Sarabeth.

“I was trying to get in touch with him because our oldest son (5-year-old Huck) had his first loose tooth, so he wanted to FaceTime with him to show him,” she says. “I called a couple times, but he didn’t answer. I assumed he was in a meeting.”

A little over an hour later, she was heading with Huck, 4-year-old daughter Birdie, and 2-year-old son Revel to her parents’ house for dinner when Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center called. She was told John had gone into cardiac arrest and that she needed to get to the emergency room immediately.

CMPD officer Nikolina Bajic, left rear, and Lawrence Guiler stand with John and Sarabeth Ogburn and their kids, from left, Birdie, 4, Huck, 5, and Revel, 2. Guiler and Bajic saved John's life a few weeks ago when they performed CPR on him for nearly 45 minutes after he had gone into caridac arrest inside a Panera Bread. (Alex Kormann/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

“It was terrifying,” she says. “When I got there, I was taken into a room with two police officers, ER doctors, nurses and clergy. Basically, they said: ‘We don’t know what’s gonna happen.’ ”

She says someone informed her that he received CPR for 38 minutes; Medic reported it at less (33 minutes) and the officers estimate it at more (45), but in any event, it was a lot.

And although his pulse had finally been re-established on the scene, he was far from safe.

When Ogburn was brought into the ER, the first person to examine him was Dr. Amy McLaughlin, Novant Health emergency medicine physician.

“Medic tells us the story,” McLaughlin says: “that he collapsed in the Panera, that first responders were less than a minute away and started CPR … that they had a total of eight shocks and five rounds of epinephrine, which is quite a bit. It’s a lot. And the total CPR time, which is a lot.”

(Some context, from McLaughlin: “Generally, when you start getting into over 30 minutes, you start thinking, ‘When should we call this?’ Because we start thinking, if we got a pulse back — I mean, we’re (concerned about) no meaningful neurological outcome after a certain amount of time. So you sort of have to weigh that in.”)

She says his pupils were responsive, which was a good sign, but his heart was still acting erratically, his blood pressure kept dropping, and they were having trouble keeping his oxygen levels up. So she put in an endotrachial tube to keep him oxygenated, gave him one medication to try to stabilize his heart and another to try to increase his blood pressure.

A quick consultation with the cardiology unit ruled out a heart attack, and the CT scan McLaughlin ordered revealed that he didn’t have any blood clots.

John Ogburn had no pre-existing heart conditions, there was no history of heart disease or heart issues in his family, he had a healthy diet, and he worked out at the 9Round kickboxing gym in Cotswold four to five days a week.

“The medical term is idiopathic,” McLaughlin says, “which means: We can’t find a cause for it. The medical term for ‘we don’t know’ is idiopathic. Just sounds better, I guess.”

'I got goosebumps all over':

Ogburn was transported to the intensive care unit, then put into a hypothermia protocol, which — as McLaughlin explains — brings the patient’s body temperature down to several degrees below normal, decreasing the metabolic demand of the body so that it can recover.

Essentially, the patient is medically paralyzed to keep his body from shivering, sedated into a coma, and given pain medicine. (It’s believed this hypothermia protocol might help prevent or lessen brain damage caused by cardiac arrest.) Ogburn’s body was warmed back up after two days — on his 36th birthday, in fact — and brought slowly out of sedation on Day 3.

“When he started to wake up from the coma,” Sarabeth Ogburn says, “he squeezed my hand. I wasn’t sure if I would ever have that again.”

His first few conscious days were a bit hazy, but it was quickly clear his brain had suffered no damage, and by the time Officers Bajic and Guiler came to the hospital to visit him on the Fourth of July, he was able to get out of bed to hug them.

“It was very emotional,” Bajic says. “I got goosebumps all over because when I saw him and his wife, and how happy they are, and we met his parents and they couldn’t stop thanking us for saving their son’s life … that’s when you realize, we did all this. … All these people’s lives were impacted by what we did.”

Just over a week after Bajic and Guiler found John Ogburn unresponsive, they stood with their arms around him in his hospital room, smiling for a camera.

A few days later, when that photo is shown to April Bradley, the Panera employee who called 911, she puts her hand to her face and her breathing hitches.

“Awesome. That’s — that’s awesome,” she says, her voice cracking. She turns her head away, then starts sobbing, silently.

'THis is why we do what we do':

It is awesome. All of it.

Amy McLaughlin, the ER doctor, points out: “If this had happened when he was on his way to Panera, he probably wouldn’t still be alive.”

Lester Oliva of Medic adds: “If police would have not showed up and done CPR … we might not have the outcome that we had with John.”

Officer Guiler, the first first responder on the scene, shakes his head: “Not many people make it out of that situation. … Seeing that he was able to make a full recovery is – I can’t even explain it. I can’t even explain it.”

Officer Bajic tries: “A miracle.”

McLaughlin sums it up: “Everything that could go right for him after this event did go right.”

Astonishingly, the only after-effects appeared to be some short-term memory loss and an extremely sore chest — from the more than 3,500 compressions Oliva says were administered.

John Ogburn now has a defibrillator implanted just beneath the surface of the skin near his left collarbone, there to give him a kick if something like this should happen again. But Sarabeth Ogburn says, “They do not expect to see him again until it’s time to change the battery in 10 years.”

They’d like to go visit the hospital staff again anyway, just to hug them, and thank them. They want to thank the firefighters, the Medic personnel, the staff at Panera; they want to try to track down the mystery nurse; and most of all, they want the world to know how special the officers are.

“They’d be the first to say, you know, ‘We’re just doing our job’ type of thing,” John Ogburn says. “But from everything I’ve heard, they were doing more than their job.”

What do the officers have to say about that?

“We were just doing our job,” Guiler says. “We were in the right place at the right time. We would do it for anybody.”

But both he and Bajic are clear on this: Knowing that they played a big part in saving Ogburn’s life is one of the best feelings they’ve ever had on said job.

“Being a police officer’s a very stressful job,” Bajic says. “There are days that this job can be just like any other job, where you just feel like you don’t want to do this anymore, and that it’s too much. … You become overwhelmed.

“I explained to John’s wife, I was saying that we have our negative and positive charge, and when things like this happen, your positive goes way up and eliminates all this negativity that you had before. … We look at each other like: This is why we do what we do. This is why.”