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Honor for local family for saving man outside Rice Hospital ER

June Boie of Rice Hospital, left, speaks with Jesus Garcia, from second left, Manuel Cuellar and Jessica Garcia during a ceremony honoring the Garcias for their actions in saving Cuellar after he suffered cardiac arrest outside Rice Memorial Hospital. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — When a 70-year-old man went into cardiac arrest in the Rice Memorial Hospital emergency room parking lot this past September, Jessica Garcia, her husband, Jesus, and brother-in-law, Eric Garcia, took action.

Jesus and Eric removed him from his car, where he was slumped over into the passenger seat. Jessica, a registered nurse at Migrant Health Services in Willmar, administered CPR until the emergency room staff could arrive.

All three were honored Wednesday with a lifesaving award of merit for their role in saving Manuel Cuellar that evening.

“Not only were you there, you stepped forward and you knew what to do,” said Denis Anderson, Willmar mayor pro tem. “You saved a life.”

Cuellar, his wife, Elisa, and the Garcias hugged, shook hands and shed a few tears at the awards ceremony, which was attended by a roomful of friends, relatives, coworkers and Rice Hospital staff.

Cuellar had brought his wife to the emergency room on the evening of Sept. 1 and was helping her out of the car when he went into cardiac arrest and collapsed. A witness ran into the ER for help.

The Garcias, who happened to be at the ER that night with a sick family member, were in the waiting room, heard the commotion and went outside to see Cuellar lying unresponsive in his car.

He was ashen-faced and without a pulse, said June Boie, director of emergency and critical care services at Rice Hospital.

“It’s not very often that people will go up to someone they see collapse and do something about it,” she said.

After giving the CPR, the Garcias stayed with Elisa Cuellar and helped translate for her while emergency room staff worked to resuscitate her husband. That night he was flown to St. Cloud Hospital, where his path and that of the Garcias crossed again — their relative who was in the ER was also transferred to St. Cloud the next day and ended up in a hospital room three doors away from Cuellar.

As a registered nurse who worked at Rice Hospital before joining the staff at Migrant Health Services, Jessica was trained in rescue skills. But in real life, “it’s very different,” she said.

“I just said a prayer and started CPR,” she said.

“It’s the first time that I know of that this happened in our emergency parking lot,” said Boie. “It’s a remarkable story.”

According to the American Heart Association, nearly 383,000 cases of sudden cardiac arrest occur outside a hospital setting in the U.S. each year. Immediate CPR can double or triple the chances of survival, yet cardiac arrest frequently is fatal because no bystanders are available who can perform CPR.

About one in three individuals who suffer sudden cardiac arrest receive CPR from a bystander, Boie noted.

New guidelines from the American Heart Association no longer call for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in conjunction with CPR, she said. “Put your hands in the middle of their chest and pump hard and fast.”

The Garcias, who got to know the Cuellars in the Rice Hospital emergency waiting room and later at St. Cloud Hospital, think the two families connected for a reason.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we were all in the same place,” said Jesus Garcia.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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