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Potomac Avenue Heart Attack Victim Thanks Rescuers

Joseph ‘Joe’ Cwiklinski said that he is only alive thanks to his neighbors.

The 75-year-old Capitol Hill resident expressed his gratitude to those people and the first responders who saved his life after he suffered a heart attack August 12 near Potomac Avenue Metro Station. Cwiklinski offered his thanks and awarded individuals ‘Cardiac Arrest Save Coins’ at DC Fire Engine Company #8 (1520 C St. SE) Thursday morning.

The coins highlight the life-saving actions of individuals in the District. They are awarded to those who assist in returning the pulse to a victim of cardiac arrest before the patient is brought to a hospital.

Cwiklinski was driving his car August 12 when he lapsed into unconsciousness due to the onset of cardiac arrest. His car went out of control and crashed into another car parked at 13th Street and Potomac Avenue SE. Neighbors rushed out to save him, calling 911 and administering CPR until DC Fire Emergency Medical Services (FEMS) arrived.

After the ambulance pulled away, they were left wondering what had become of the tall man they had pulled out of his vehicle.

Then: a sign. About a week after the accident, a thank you note appeared, attached to a tree near the accident site. “Good Samaritans of Potomac Ave – You Save My Life!” it read.

“You pulled me out of the car, called 911, performed CPR for several minutes while waiting for Emergency Help. My doctor said your quick, immediate, steady CPR action saved me. Today I am recovering back home.”

It was signed, “Forever Grateful, Joe.”

Photographs of the sign were shared widely on social media. “That is the Washington DC I grew up in,” wrote one in response. “This fills my heart,” wrote another.

Joseph ‘Joe’ Cwiklinski’s partner Thomas Kai put up a sign near Potomac Metro Station a week after the accident. “We wanted to thank everyone, but we didn’t know who to thank,” he said. Photos of the sign were widely shared on social media.

A Village Approach

Both DC FEMS and representatives from the Office of Councilmember Charles Allen (D) said that it was the ‘village approach’ used by neighbors that saved his life. “The noise of the accident attracted the attention of the neighborhood, initiating a chain of events that led to Joe’s survival,” said Allen’s Senior Counsel Nichole Opkins, speaking at the event.

DC FEMS Medical Director Dr. Robert Holman said that the cardiac arrest survival rate in the District has improved over the last four years, increasing from 5 percent in 2014 to 10 percent in 2018, but the number of bystanders who are stepping into help is also increasing. He said that more than 70,000 people have been trained by DC FEMS in hands-on-hearts CPR.

When they heard the noise, Deborah and Alphonso Williams rushed outside of their home to investigate, thinking someone had hit one of their cars parked on the street. They found Cwiklinski had rear-ended a vehicle owned by Alphonso. Cwiklinski’s car came to a rest pointed to the middle of the street. He was still unconscious behind the steering wheel.

Toni Pollard was visiting her old neighborhood, taking a walk with two young friends when she heard what she described as a big boom and rushed to investigate. A Registered Medical Assistant with the Charles City Medical Group, Pollard said that she immediately knew that something was serious.

“I didn’t know if it was a diabetic coma he slipped into or a heart attack or a stroke –I knew it was something major because he went out,” she said.

Neighbors worked together with Pollard, Deborah and Alphonso Williams to remove Cwiklinski from the car.

While a neighbor spoke to 911, Pollard got the go-ahead to begin administering CPR until DC FEMS Engine 8 and EMS Unit 2 arrived on scene.

“There were no signs of life when he was sitting in the [vehicle],” she said. Once they eased Cwiklinski on to the ground, Pollard administered two and half sets of thirty compressions. It was then, she said, that she saw signs of life begin to flicker. Soon, he began to breath, but Pollard kept pumping.

“When EMT arrived I went into shock,” she said. “When they tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘he’s breathing. You can stop now’, I started to cry.”

Pollard said that the team began work on Cwiklinski but many also went over to her to check on her welfare.

“Doing that actually on a human, I feel like it took the soul out of me,” she said, “but it was worth it. It was well worth it.”

She said meeting again at the Oct. 3rd event was overwhelming. “It’s amazing, it’s a miracle, because you save someone’s life and you thought he wasn’t going to make it. To hear that he made it, and to hear his own doctor say, ‘that was an angel that saved your life,’ that was serious,” Pollard said.

While Pollard worked, Williams said, she cried, and she prayed. “I’m just glad Joe’s okay. It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “I love kindness. Everybody just worked, and was so kind. That’s just how the community is.”

Asked if she had met Cwiklinski prior to the accident, Williams said “No, I hadn’t. But I’m sure going to know him now.”

Brought the Neighborhood Together

Cwiklinski has made a thorough recovery, coming home four days after the accident. Neighbors say they caught sight of the avid gardener weeding in his yard six days after he suffered from cardiac arrest.

“We knew he was back to normal when he was back out trying to garden and plant things –in our yards too,” said Meg van Achterberg, who lives near to Cwiklinski and his partner, Thomas Kai. “That’s what he does. He’s a very active guy in the neighborhood, all the kids love him and greet him.”

In his remarks at the ceremony, Cwiklinski said, “what everyone told me here today is so brand new to me. I don’t realize all the things that had to be done to get me to this point right now.”

“I’m still absorbing it, but the most important part is somebody has the skill, knowledge and wherewithal to stick to it and do their job and to do the things that help people survive,” he added. “There’s not much more that I can think to say other than: thank you.”

A Sign

The sign appeared on August 20, once Cwiklinski was at home recovering. He said it was Kai’s brainchild. “He has a sense of kindness that comes out in times like this,” said Cwiklinski, “and he said that something should be done.”

Kai said that they wanted to say thank you to the people who had saved Joe, but weren’t sure of the identity of the individuals involved. However, they knew from news reports that many of those who saved Joe were their neighbors. “So, I said ‘let’s put a sign up’, and that worked out,” he said.

The neighborhood was relieved to hear that ‘Joe’ had recovered. For weeks, the Hill neighborhood wondered at the identity of the thankful accident victim. While Kai and Cwiklinski are very relieved at Joe’s recovery, they are a little surprised by all the interest in the story.

“It’s very good to have a happy ending,” said Kai, “still, we feel a little startled and surprised by all the media attention.”

Cwiklinski agreed. “I thought a quiet little ceremony,” he said after the Oct. 3rd event. He said he doesn’t feel like he deserves any attention for what happened to him in August. “When I met [the firefighters], I said I didn’t really want to get involved with the media,” he said.

“That’s not the important thing, it’s the people who helped me out that really deserve attention.”

Learn more about how you can be trained in Hands-on-Hearts CPR by visiting the DC FEMS website at fems.dc.gov/vi/page/hands-hearts-cpr-program. Once you have received training, you can download PulsePoint, an app that will tell you if there is an event in your immediate vicinity so that you can administer aid. Get it from the iTunes App Store and Google Play.

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