June 22 began like any workday for Bill Zimmerman of South Kitsap, owner of First Choice Construction. He got up at 5:30 a.m., showered quickly, dressed and headed out to pick up materials for a job he was doing for a neighbor.
Bill, 55, who does custom construction, is meticulous and driven, according to his girlfriend of 14 years, Doreen King, 57. He was particularly anxious that day to pick up a slab of granite that had been delayed in delivery. But as the slab was being transferred to Bill’s truck, it fell and shattered. Bill, his frustration mounting, waited two hours for a new slab to be cut and polished.
Later, Bill and his helper lifted the granite slab into place in the home under remodel. Suddenly, Bill began to feel lightheaded. He went home, calling it a day maybe just a shade earlier than usual. He sat down on the couch and told Doreen, “I have chest pain, and my arms hurt.”
He recalls telling her maybe he’d have to knock off lifting granite, leave it to the younger kids. He recalls thinking maybe he’d pulled a muscle in his chest. That granite was 300 pounds, after all. And that was all Bill remembers until five days later when he woke up in Harrison Medical Center’s intensive care unit.
Doreen, or Dee, as Bill calls her, is a Navy veteran and former reservist with a lengthy career in medical billing. While in the reserves, working at Naval Hospital Bremerton, she learned basic first aid and CPR, and she happened to have a blood pressure cuff in the home. She checked Bill’s vital signs and was alarmed at the numbers.
Dee was just about to say, “Let’s go to the hospital,” when Bill looked at her and said, “Oh, no.” His head dropped back, his eyes rolled, “his mouth contorted and his whole body seemed to be in a spasm,” Dee said.
She and her son, Pete, moved him to the floor, where Dee began CPR, as Bill was not breathing. Every time she stopped to check, Bill would take one large breath but no more, so she continued with compressions, as Pete called 911.
South Kitsap Fire & Rescue medics arrived within five minutes (4.5 by Doreen’s recollection). They “shocked” Bill three times and hustled him into an ambulance. On the way out the door, Dee was surprised to meet the EMS chaplain. “Were they expecting the worst?” she wondered.
In the emergency room, the pace of activity and urgency in the
doctors’ and nurses’ voices told Doreen that Bill’s life “was
hanging by a thread.” A cardiologist put a stent in a blood vessel
that was completely blocked, and — miraculously, by his doctor’s
account — Bill survived. The doctor credits Doreen’s effective CPR
with the fact Bill did not suffer any brain damage.
Bill was sent to the intensive care unit, heavily sedated, and put on a ventilator, since he had inhaled body fluids during his ordeal. After five days of intensive respiratory therapy in the ICU, his lungs were clear enough for him to be woken up and taken off the ventilator.
Bill remembers almost nothing from the time the heart attack came on. One of the first things he said to Doreen was, “I have to finish that job.” Dee told him, “It will be there for you.”
Bill was blown away to hear about Dee’s role in his near death experience. “It brought tears to my eyes,” he said, “I think it’s strengthened my relationship with her. I know how much she truly loves me. It doesn’t come any better than this. She knows I love her, too, because I squeezed her hand in the hospital. That’s the first thing I told her when I was able, ‘I love you, and you saved my life.’”
Dee and Bill have played the lottery in the past. In the hospital, Dee thought about luck and what could have happened. She told Bill, “You know what? You hit the lotto, guy, you’re alive.”
Both are grateful to the SKFR paramedics, the staff of Harrison’s ER and ICU, and Bill’s cardiologist, Dr. David Tinker.
“He (Bill) was in the right place at the right time, with the right people, just the way God wanted it,” Dee said.
Three weeks after the heart attack, Bill was in the doctor’s office asking when he could go back to work.
“It’s hard for someone like me, who’s done this all his life to be sitting here,” he said. “It’s driving me crazy. On the other hand, I can’t be putting my life in jeopardy.”
Bill has quit smoking, replaced coffee with tea and can look forward to taking medications for the rest of his life. He has to take it easy — no lifting granite slabs, at least until he gets the doctor’s OK. But there’s no doubt he’s making a remarkable recovery.
There’s another problem, however. While Bill was in the hospital, someone stole his tools out of his truck. Because of his sudden illness, the truck wasn’t secured and it was parked just off his property, so homeowner’s insurance won’t cover the tools. Nor will Bill’s auto policy. Replacing them would cost about $3,000.
To make matters worse, Dee, was laid off from her last position with the Veteran’s Benefit Administration and is seeking work in a crowded job market. But in between worrying about getting through each day, the couple has been able to put things in perspective.
Bill’s relatively smooth recovery since his release from the intensive care unit has give the whole episode a surreal sheen, Dee said. It almost seems like it never happened. But then, she’ll look outside at the lawn and wonder how things would be if Bill weren’t here to mow the grass, little things like that.
“You don’t take it for granted that he’s sitting there,” Dee said. “Every day counts. Now it’s much more meaningful.”
For information on CPR classes, contact your local fire department. In South Kitsap, visit, South Kitsap Fire & Rescue’s website (skfr.org), or call (360) 871-2411.
The Home Builders Association of Kitsap County will offer a CPR class at 10 a.m. Sept. 8 at the HBA office, 5251 Auto Center Way in Bremerton. Those who complete the training will be certified for two years under the Washington State Industrial Safety & Health Act, which requires a “person holding a valid certificate of First Aid Training be present or available at all work sites.” The fee is $50 for HBA members; $60 for nonmembers. Register online at www.kitsaphba.com.
A donation account to help cover medical expenses and tool replacement has been set up for William Zimmerman at Kitsap Credit Union.
P.S. Note to readers: Yes, I do notice the less-than-subtle product placement in this photo submitted by Dee. I guess I could have cropped it out, but given what these two have been through, I let it stand. And in the interest of full disclosure, I know Doreen from when her son and my son were friends in elementary school in the 1990s. I thought the story had merit in that it’s a pretty dramatic account of CPR in action. — Chris Henry, reporter