touching a miracle: my role in the resurrection of Ian Hesford

As I re-arrange my on-line presence and start a new blog, it seems only fitting to start it off by finally writing about one of the most significant events in my life and the lives of several other people.

On April 20th, after presenting a lecture at the Ecumenicon Interfaith Conference in Beltsville, I happened to get a call from my day job about a server problem. I headed home to Catonsville to resolve it, planning to return to Ecumenicon for the evening's activities. But by the time the issue was resolved it was getting late, so rather than go back to Beltsville I made the fateful decision to go to the Telesma show at Power Plant Live...where I got to be part of a medical miracle.

I've known Telesma since the band first started to get together. Back in the winter of 2002/2003 I was dating a woman who lived in the same house as Jason Sage, and so I got to hear some of Jason's first sonic experiments with Ian Hesford drifting up from the basement. I remember seeing Ian and Jason play with various other musicians at the Carriage House during that legendary series of open stage nights in Sowebo. I've watched the band form around that core, and been to more of their shows than I can count. I even helped out as a stagehand at their Visionary Solstice Gathering and got to hang out with the band and Alex and Allyson Grey backstage at Sonar.

On that April night three months ago, I got to Power Plant Live just as the opening band was finishing its set. While Telesma set up I wandered around and said hello to various folks I hadn't seen in a while -- it was spring, after all, and I had hadn't gone out much over the winter. In fact it had been a while since I'd been out dancing, so as Telesma took the stage I worked my way to the front to get some dancing space. I remember catching the eyes of a few band members -- I was conspicuous in my famous purple top hat -- and waving.

As the band started playing I started dancing, so I wasn't watching the stage the whole time. But here's what I remember: I saw Ian bump into one of his didges, knocking it over. I remember that because I've knocked my guitars over a few times and know how much it hurts a musician to have an instrument hit the floor! So when I looked at the stage again some seconds later and saw Ian lying on the floor, my first thought was that he had bent down to pick it up. But he didn't get back up. Oh, I thought, he must be having some equipment problem, maybe he's dealing with a loose mic cable. (The stage is a elevated by a couple of feet and Ian was behind his big barrel drums, so I couldn't see what was going on well.) When Ian's friend Travis leaped onto the stage, I at first assumed he was a sound tech jumping in to help with that hypothetical cable. Then I saw Travis shake Ian, and shout to Phil Laubner, who was taking photos from the left side (house left) of the stage. I saw Phil run into the wings, and then I knew there was a problem. I ran over to meet Phil as he came out into the house, and heard him tell a security guy to call the paramedics.

Now, there's one thing I will say about my family: we may not have a lot of money, and we may not be descended from aristocrats, but we're damn good people to have around when there's an emergency. My mom and both my grandmothers were nurses. My dad served in the Air Police (the Air Force's equivalent of the Military Police) in Vietnam; his dad was a Baltimore City fire fighter, and my mom's dad volunteered as an ambulance driver back before they had paramedics. I've seen both my father and my mother calmly step up when trouble struck. It's not so much a specific skill set as an attitude that my brother and I were raised with: in case of a crisis keep calm, figure out what needs to be done, and do it.

It also happened that I had just renewed my first aid and CPR training a few weeks before. I'd had first aid training several times before, dating back to the high school summers I spent as a lifeguard. Even before that I tagged along to a CPR class with my mom when I was twelve or so. Back in college I had a job at the university health center as a CPR Instructor Trainer -- that is, I not only taught CPR classes but taught instructors how to teach CPR. (My instructor's certification, though, is long expired.)

Now, despite all this, the most I'd ever had to do up to this point was check that a passed-out friend was indeed still breathing. (Some of you may have heard me tell the story of the night 911 called me, I'll have to blog about that sometime.) So when I had to renew my certifications when I moved my karate class over to the Catonsville Y, I took it as just another boring review to get the piece of paper, not something I'd ever use.

Ha-ha, say the Fates.

I told the security guy I had first aid training, and he let me by as I ran onto the stage and tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

I was expecting that Ian has just passed out; dehydration or overheating or something like that, that we'd get him some water, put him in the recovery position, and make soothing noises until the paramedics showed up. No big deal, so I wasn't having any fear yet. In fact at this point I'm not sure if the rest of the band had noticed what was going on, I seem to recall that the music was still going as I got to the stage but I'm not going to swear to that. "The show must go on" and all; if they did see Ian on the floor his bandmates quite likely thought the same as I did at first, that he was dealing with a technical problem, so it makes sense if they kept playing for a moment.

But it quickly became apparent that something was wrong, that Ian wasn't getting back up and was not responding. It couldn't have been much more than a minute between the time Ian went down until the music stopped and several people were gathered around him, trying to figure out what was wrong. Had he taken anything? (No offense to Ian, but we had to ask.) No. Could it be some reaction to the body paint, overheating or an allergic reaction? Someone called for water and paper towels to get it off of him. People were shouting suggestions. One of them -- Sarah Saccoccio -- said she was a nurse.

An excellent rule for dealing with a crisis: find out who's best qualified and put them in charge. I yelled that Sarah was a nurse, I was a former CPR instructor, and did anyone here have more qualifications? No? Then Sarah was in charge. When I called out for anyone more qualified I was hoping a doctor would step forward, but as it turned out that Sarah is not just a nurse but a nurse at Baltimore's world-class Shock Truama Center -- we had one of the most qualified people in Baltimore there. Part one of the miracle.

Ian was completely unresponsive and limp, his eyes open and staring. I titled his head back to open his airway and leaned over to "look, listen, and feel" and check that he was breathing. Now, it's a funny thing about the human brain: give it information that doesn't fit its model of the world and it will reject it. Ian is a young, healthy guy, and while he might have passed out for some reason, of course he was still breathing. Had to be. There, see his chest move? My brain almost convinced itself that I could see, hear, and feel him breathing. But I realized that no, it was just a hopeful expectation. He wasn't.

It was at this point that two contradictory things happened in my brain. First, the acceptance that this was a serious situation and the fear that that brought on. When I taught CPR we actually taught that one of the signs of a heart attack is denial: no one wants to believe it's really happening. I'd talked about that many times, but now I saw it at work in my own brain and had to get past it. But the second thing that happened helped me do that: routine. A set pattern of behavior, practiced enough times that you can do with even as the monkey mind screams and gibbers. "Yes, monkey, it's scary but I have work to do so please get out of the way."

So in a maneuver I'd performed hundred of time on mannequins but never on a person, I put my mouth to his and blew into his lungs, then felt at his neck for a pulse. I found a weak one, and continued giving breaths for a minute or so. Sarah checked for a pulse again, couldn't find a good one, and we started CPR, she doing chest compressions (very good ones, if she was my student I'd be proud) and me doing breaths.

Two things about this. One, someone who knows the latest standards might notice that I was using an older CPR protocol, not going immediately to compressions. Not surprising, even though I'd just learned the newest one the one I'd taught for years came out under stress. Two, there's a very heavy mythopoetic thing about the breath of life. Even though Sarah's chest compressions were more important (indeed, latest research suggests that compressions alone can be effective CPR), I was putting my breath into Ian's body, a very intimate thing

I don't know how long we were at it before the EMTs arrived. Somewhere in there I yelled for someone to bring an AED, if there was one around, but the EMTs got there before anyone brought it. At one point it seemed Ian might have started breathing on his own, but apparently it was just what they call "agonal gasping", so we went back to work.

When the EMTs arrived the took Ian right out to the ambulance...and that's when the long-delayed adrenaline dump hit me. Whoa. I was dazed, but so was everyone else there. We turned to each other for comfort.

I helped the other band members pack out, and followed them to Mercy Hospital where Ian had been taken. We learned later that despite extended CPR and several attempts at defibrillation Ian was without a pulse for over an hour and half -- but the doctors and nurses didn't give up. Part two of the miracle.

After such an extended time without a heartbeat, the prognosis would be lousy. We could expect Ian to suffer brain and organ damage. But part three of the miracle is that Mercy uses a relatively new protocol, therapeutic hypothermia, in which the patient's body temperature is lowered. In combination with dialysis, this protected Ian's brain and vital organs to the point where, three weeks after literally dying on stage, he walked out of the hospital.

I visited Ian several times in the hospital in the following days. But then I had to head to Japan for the tournament in Aichi, so I was out of the country as he regained consciousness and was discharged. I finally got to see him at the Sowebo Festival on May 27. The reunion looked something like this:

(Photo shameless stolen from What Weekly and Theresa Keil.)

So, tonight I'm headed to the Telesma: Resurrection show, celebrating this amazing story.


Links to coverage elsewhere:

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