Ask Progress Rail machinist Don Meadors how important it is to work for a company that makes safety a top priority, and he will likely say, “It’s everything.” Don – who had no known heart disease – was preparing to report for his second-shift workday in mid-August when, without warning, he suffered cardiac arrest.
And what happened next is the stuff miracles are made of.
Ziggy Melero is a first-shift employee at the Progress Rail LaGrange, Illinois, facility. Ziggy was looking forward to heading home after a long day at work. The sun was shining, and it was Wednesday – only two days left until the weekend. As Ziggy approached his car, he realized his backpack was still inside the plant. He sighed, turned around, and headed back in.
Inside the building, Ziggy spotted his forgotten backpack, but as he reached for it, he saw something he’ll likely never forget. Don Meadors, a co-worker who was sitting in a chair putting on steel-toed work shoes, slumped forward and fell, hitting his head on the concrete floor with resounding force. Acting on instinct, Ziggy reached in his pocket for his cell phone and made a crucial call that began a chain of events to fight for Don’s life.
The call rang out that a man was down. Juan Rivera, a second-shift maintenance supervisor and trained First Responder, answered the emergency call and was quickly on the scene.
“I found Don face down on the ground,” Juan says. “I began talking to him to see if he was conscious before trying to flip him over. I heard him take a shallow breath, and I realized Don was in serious trouble. I reached for his wrist and found a light pulse. I tried to turn Don over, but his feet were wedged. Then I heard Don take his last breath.”
At what seemed like exactly the right moment, Rick Ramirez, a first-shift supervisor, arrived and – along with others – helped successfully flip Don over on his back. Rick is no stranger to emergencies, having served as a First Responder in the LaGrange facility for many years. Without hesitation, Rick dropped to his knees and began chest compressions. It was a decision that later would prove pivotal in the outcome. Studies show that patient survival rate is closely tied to how quickly CPR begins – keeping blood and oxygen moving in the body until paramedics arrive to perform more advanced life support.
Juan says, “Just when I began to think I might not be able to turn Don over, Rick appeared seemingly out of nowhere. I knew that Rick had been in this sort of situation before and that he would know exactly what to do.”
As Rick continued chest compressions, more help arrived, including brand-new First Responder Christopher Williams, a second-shift supervisor on the engine line. When Christopher heard the call – which initially labeled the emergency as simply “man fell down” – he grabbed a pair of gloves and headed toward the scene – the crowd was quickly growing with bystanders. As Christopher got closer, he realized the seriousness of the situation and ran to get the defibrillator (AED).
When later asked about how real-life CPR differed from his First Responder training, Christopher pauses for a moment. “It was different only in that I didn’t know who was going to be there. And I didn’t know if I was going to be the first or the last person to show up. Since it was my very first call, I was hoping other First Responders would be there. First, I went and got gloves because I was expecting to find somebody with a scraped knee. But as I approached the scene, there were a ton of people gathered, and I began to fear that it was something more serious. Then I saw Juan and Rick working with Don, who was lying down, so I just ran and got the AED.”
Meanwhile, fellow workers arrived to help, and each acted according to their talents. Electrician Frank Craig assessed the scene and noticed Don’s foot was touching metal stairsteps connected to a platform where workers were standing. “Being an electrician, I know the AED shoots about 3,000 volts, so the people on the metal platform were at risk,” Frank says. “I was able to get them off the platform before the AED was activated.”
Others were helping in ways they’d been trained. Plant safety and security manager Gilbert Ledger helped Rick with chest compressions, each taking turns. The entire team followed their First Responder training to a T, and used the AED as instructed. Eventually, they got a heartbeat.
For many of the bystanders, time seemed to fly – and with it, the hope of a recovery for Don. But for Rick, who was continuing to deliver chest compressions, and Juan, who was providing rescue breaths during those moments – time virtually stood still.
“While I was giving Don air, I noticed how cold he was becoming,” Juan recalls. “There were lots of other things going on, too, and the machinery was extremely loud. But it was a very, very still moment in time. We didn’t know whether five minutes had passed or whether it had been 40 minutes. At one point, it just seemed like forever. I had heard Don take what I thought was his last breath. And I’m not gonna lie. When I saw that ambulance stretcher finally coming around the corner, it was like winning the lottery.”
Meanwhile, Don’s wife, Mabel, was working at daughter Vanessa’s law office about 30 miles away when she got the call. On the line was the medical nurse, Cathy Ryan, from Don’s workplace. Don had sustained a fall, Cathy said. And he had stopped breathing.
Mabel and Vanessa set out for the hospital. En route, Mabel spoke with a doctor at the hospital where Don had been taken. “How far away are you?” the doctor asked.
Mabel looked at the GPS. “About 20 or 25 minutes,” she replied.
“Be careful,” the doctor said. “But get here just as soon as you can.”
Once she arrived, Mabel was escorted to a small room where she waited. And waited. After more than 20 minutes – a seemingly endless period – a doctor entered the room.
“He’s alive,” the doctor announced. “We have a heartbeat.”
Don indeed had a heartbeat, but he was far from out of the woods. A team of skilled doctors and nurses continued around-the-clock intensive medical care that had begun with the First Responders’ swift action. Still, Don remained unconscious – in a combination of a natural and medically-induced coma.
No one knew whether Don would wake up. Or how much brain function he would have, even if he did.
Three days after his arrival at the hospital, the doctors took Don out of his medically-induced coma. They continually cautioned Mabel to manage her expectations regarding Don’s outcome. It doesn’t look good, they said. “The best we can hope is that he will open his eyes and look around. That’s the best that can happen.”
But Mabel had faith. She stayed by Don’s side and talked to him about their future. As he lay in the hospital surrounded by an endless array of medical equipment, Mabel recalled the last time she had seen Don conscious. Mabel had been sitting in her car in their Joliet, Illinois, driveway when Don got in his car to leave for work that fateful day. He had rolled down his window and pulled up alongside her car.
“What are you doing on that phone?” he had asked.
“I’m just canceling a doctor’s appointment.”
Mabel recalled looking at Don again before he drove off that day, and she had said to him, “I want another kiss! Get out, come over here and give me another kiss.” And Don had obliged.
Now, as he lay motionless with his eyes closed, Mabel admitted to herself, “What I had really wanted was another hug. I wish I had gotten another hug.” So, she said aloud to herself and Don, “If you ever open those eyes again, I’ll never look at them the same.”
And open them he did.
Just hours after the doctors took Don out of his medically-induced coma, daughter Vanessa felt moved by prayer to play a particular song for her dad. Vanessa cued up the song on her phone and put the speaker next to Don’s ear. When the song began playing, Mabel and Vanessa saw Don’s eyes fly open. He immediately sat up and tried to get out of bed. “It was amazing!” recounts Mabel.
Don had been in the hospital for three days.
Even though he had gained a degree of consciousness, Don still had a long way to go. Over the next few weeks, Don’s periods of alertness grew longer, and his physical abilities began returning to normal. And Mabel watched with wonder as her husband reemerged.
Don was released from the hospital just 22 days after his heart stopped beating on that Wednesday at 2:35 p.m.
A short three weeks after Don’s release from the hospital, he walked back into the Progress Rail facility where the incident had occurred – this time for a celebration. Don and Mabel met and thanked those credited with saving his life.
“I call them my angels,” Don says, his voice filled with emotion. “I have no idea what went down that day. So, I told them, ‘I’ve heard some stories, but I want to hear it from the horses. So, you all are my horses and my angels. Could you please tell me what happened on that day?’”
Meeting with the team was understandably emotional.
“The stories they told me were graphic, and because I don’t remember anything from that day, it was quite an enlightenment for me. It really touched my heart that everyone had so many things to say about what happened and that they cared so deeply.
“This team is second to none,” Don continues. They responded quickly, and I’m evidence of it. The greatest thing was how expeditious they were about putting me back together. They did everything perfectly – just like it was something they do every day. Even the local fire department gave them a commendation. They did all the right things at exactly the right time. And because of that, I didn’t lose anything mentally or physically. People call me the Miracle Man, but my angels here performed the true miracle that day.”
When asked what’s next, Don doesn’t answer right away. He quietly folds his hands and rests them in his lap. “You know what,” he answers in a soft voice, “when someone tells you that you died and now, you’re no longer dead, it gives you a fresh perspective. First of all, you need to be grateful – just be grateful for everything and everybody responsible for you taking another breath.
“As a living soul, you don’t complain anymore. You just don’t complain. I’m a man of faith, so I think of the things I didn’t get done before. Now I can do them because I’ve been given another chance. But, I’m a realist. I’m all about today. Yesterday is gone. You can learn from it, but you can’t live in yesterday because it’s simply a waste of time.
“I just concentrate on what’s next. And then I say, ‘Let’s get it done.’”
The LaGrange facility’s First Responder program is designed to have immediate life-saving processes at the ready for any emergency. Facility EMT and First Responder Mark Meyers explains, “Time is critical, especially in the case of cardiac arrest. We have an on-site medical office with volunteer trained First Responders and seven defibrillators located throughout the facility.”
First Responders are trained in CPR, AED, first aid, bloodborne pathogens, fire response, and hazmat awareness. Volunteers get a company-paid full physical exam to ensure they’re physically capable of handling an emergency. The program is available to hourly and salaried employees, and the facility currently has 19 trained First Responders, distributed over two shifts. In addition, nearly 100 employees are trained in CPR.
Volunteers for the program are recruited and trained throughout the year with emphasis on preparation. Attendance at monthly training and refresher classes is required. Linda Kassner, manager of facility’s medical team, takes the lead on making sure the First Responder team is robust, well trained and prepared to provide life support until professionals arrive on the scene. The program is solid evidence that safety is the facility’s number one priority.
A crucial element of the program is called “Event Debriefing.” Whenever a serious safety event occurs, those involved meet to review the event in detail, asking themselves, “What did we learn? What could we do better next time?” Investigating and learning from every event helps the team continually improve.
Progress Rail VP of Locomotive Operations Stephen Harris happened to be at the LaGrange facility and witnessed Don Meadors’s medical event.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” Steve says. “If not for the whole team springing into action, this story could have a very different ending. The team responded quickly. The thoroughness of their training and their ability to execute as a team was amazing. It’s a reflection of the safety culture at the LaGrange facility and showcases the value of the people who work there.”
“For me, as a man of faith, it all starts with God,” Don says. “I’m extremely grateful to God for allowing me another chance to get it right. I want to thank the doctors, nurses and hospital staff who gave me such excellent care. And I especially appreciate the love, prayers and continued support of all my family and friends. It means everything to me.”
Progress Rail and Caterpillar thank those whose quick action dedication to safety helped save Don’s life that day.