KU School of Medicine students spring into action after man suffers heart attack at Kansas City’s Big 12 Run
January 04, 2018
By Greg Peters
Dave Houchin calls them his angels, but the three University of Kansas School of Medicine students who saved his life at a local road race last year say they were just doing what any of their classmates would have done in the same situation.
Sebastian Schoneich, Kelly Lembke and Dakota Bunch, who are on target to graduate in 2019, were in the final stages of Kansas City's Big 12 Run on March 11, 2017, when they saw police and other runners huddled around a man in distress lying in the roadway. Fortunately, the three friends had just recertified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) a few weeks earlier as a mandatory part of their training, so when they saw Houchin in trouble, their instincts kicked in.
With the help of an area doctor, who had just finished the race, the students kept chest compressions going until emergency medical technicians arrived and transported Houchin to the hospital. It wasn't until days later, however, that Houchin learned the identities of his Good Samaritans.
"I'm eternally grateful to those guys," Houchin said. "Probably, at best, without them I'd be about half the person I am today physically and mentally. Because of them, I was probably without oxygen for only about 30 seconds. I've got three angels there."
When dawn broke on race day, it was a bitter cold. With temperatures in the low 20s and snow falling, the three classmates were second-guessing their decision to run the event that looped through Downtown Kansas City.
"It was freezing," said Lembke, who started training a few months earlier with the goal of running her first 5K. "I didn't really want to go that day. I was trying to find some excuse not to run, but obviously I'm glad I did."
Bunch and Schoneich didn't want their friend going through her first 5K race experience alone, so they goaded each other to run despite the miserable conditions. The three agreed to stay together during the race, so their pace was a little slower than it might have been, which was fortunate for Houchin.
Houchin, who was 58 on race day, had always been an athlete. He played soccer and basketball at Faith Bible Baptist College in Iowa, but turned to running at around age 30 when nagging injuries kept forcing him to the sidelines. He ran his first marathon, the San Francisco Marathon, at 49, and a year later completed the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C.
Houchin's memories of race day 2017, however, are limited. He remembers watching KU play basketball in the Big 12 Tournament the night before and stopping for coffee and gas at the HyVee in Lenexa with his wife and son that morning. The next thing he remembers is waking up Monday morning in a room at Truman Medical Center.
"We started out at a normal pace for the first half mile of so," remembers Regan Houchin, who was at his father's side throughout the Big 12 race. "He started slowing, and then we were really crawling. I could tell he was tired.
"About two-and-a-half miles in he said "whoa, whoa" and sank to his knees and rolled onto his back."
Cardiologists told Houchin that he had dislodged soft plaque in his veins that lodged in his left anterior descending artery. The combination of the cold weather and being out of shape may have provided the perfect storm that resulted in the blockage.
Schoneich remembers running up a hill just before seeing people start to gather around a runner who had fallen and was in the "rescue" position. "I veered off and asked if everything was all right. I felt for a pulse, and there was no pulse. So I knew we needed to start compressions.
"Looking back at doing CPR, it felt like I blacked out," he continued. "I didn't really know what was happening in my surroundings. I was just focusing on 'what does this guy need? Does anybody else know how to do compressions? Has anybody called an ambulance?'"
By this time, Bunch and Lembke had slowed, and when they saw their friend start chest compressions, they sprinted back and prepared to take turns doing CPR.
"My son said both students were good, but Kelly (a former EMT) really got after it," said Houchin. "The paramedics shocked me three times in the street trying to get a rhythm not knowing my artery was 99 percent blocked. It wasn't 100 percent blocked, but I'm guessing the compressions loosened things up just enough so that I was getting something."
"I had done CPR a few times in the emergency room, but that was the first time in outside the hospital," Lembke said. "And it's the first time the patient lived, so that was really cool."
"I was a lifeguard for a long time, so I had run through this scenario a million times in my head," Schoneich said. "There was a lot of adrenaline rushing through my body because I thought, 'this is a real situation.' As soon as I felt there was no pulse, I knew it was "go time."
Go time meant chest compressions. The students teamed with the doctor to perform CPR. When emergency medical technicians arrived after being caught in race-day traffic, they shocked Houchin's heart three times trying to restore a rhythm before whisking him away to Truman Medical Center where doctors inserted a stent in his heart.
Unsung heroes and the road to recovery
With Houchin heading to the hospital, the students wandered back into the obscurity of the race and finished under a cloud of melancholy. As they sat drinking what should have been a celebratory post-race beer, they couldn't help but wonder about what had happened? And in the days following the race, they couldn't let go of their thoughts about the man they had labored so hard to save.
Lembke Googled combinations of Big 12, 5K, CPR and heart attack before finally finding a television news story about the incident. Early the next week, the three tracked Houchin down at Truman Medical Center and made a surprise visit.
"It was very emotional," Lembke said. "His wife and family were there. Everyone was crying. It was really gratifying to see all our hard work pay off. To have an actual impact on someone's life was really amazing."
Fast forward six months and Houchin is back fulltime at his consulting job. With his doctor's permission, he runs frequently but wears a heart-rate monitor to ensure he isn't pushing too hard. There's even talk of he and Regan participating in this year's Big 12 Run along with their new friends from KU Medical Center.
In September, Houchin invited everyone involved in his rescue to his birthday party. Bunch, Lembke and Schoneich found time in their busy medical student schedules to attend. "He wasn't looking very good when we saw him in the hospital, but he looked amazing when we saw him at his birthday party," Lembke said.
"Mr. Houchin's story is pretty incredible," Bunch added. "It shows how big of an impact you can have on someone's life just by knowing something as basic as CPR."
"We're thrilled beyond belief with the outcome," Schoneich concluded, "But we just feel that we were in the right place at the right time, and that any of our classmates would have jumped in and done the same thing."