ATLANTA - It’s been a year since a day John Heilig can’t remember, but will never forget.
It was the day, in the middle of Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest airport, Heilig’s heart suddenly stopped.
“Somebody asked me if I’d seen anything, like bright lights,” Heilig says.
He didn’t, for the record.
But, one year later, the Titusville, Florida, 67-year old is back at Emory University Midtown Hospital in Atlanta with his daughter Debbie Huff, to say thank you to the cardiac team, and the guy with the badge.
“It’s really a miracle that things turned out the way they did,” says John Seebode, that guy.
On the afternoon of December 11, 2015, Heilig’s plane from Hong Kong had just touched at Hartsfield-Jackson, after a 14-hour flight.
“Everything just fell into place,” he says. “If it would have happened on the plane, coming over the Pacific...”
Heilig stepped off his plane, and headed for passport control.
He only made it about 20 feet before he collapsed.
“I was in the middle of conducting an interview,” says U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer John Seebode, who was standing about 30 years away.
Seebode heard shouting.
“Somebody was screaming that someone had passed out,” he remembers.
When he got to him, Seebode found Heilig on the floor, unconscious.
“Just unresponsive,” he says. “Didn’t feel a pulse. Didn’t see him breathing.”
Heilig was in cardiac arrest. His heart had stopped beating.
Officer Seebode, who had first trained in CPR 13 years earlier as a sheriff’s deputy, starting chest compressions, as someone else grabbed a nearby A-E-D.
“To be honest with you, it’s something you always train for and when the time comes, you just jump into action,” Officer Seebode says. “You really don’t think about much. And, honestly, you really don’t have the time.”
Seebode and the others who came to Heilig’s aid were able to shock his heart back into more normal rhythm.
He felt hopeful, as airport paramedics and EMTs took over.
“But, he was in rough shape,” Seebode remembers.
And Heilig’s ordeal was just beginning.
“He had a cardiac arrest in the ambulance, again in the emergency room, and then again in the cath lab,” says Dr. Henry Liberman, an Emory interventional cardiologist and director of the Emory Midtown Cardiac Catheterization Lab.
A blood clot had cut off the blood supply to part of Heilig’s heart, sending it into abnormal rhythm.
That caused his heart to suddenly falter and stop beating.
A few days later at Emory Midtown Hospital, it happened again.
Staffers performed CPR for over a half hour and brought John back.
He went back to the cath lab for another procedure to reopen a blockage.
That’s why Heilig has flown again for the first time since his cardiac arrest, to see Seebode and the Emory Midtown team who took care of him.
“I just had to come back and just thank everybody, and let them know I’m doing great,” says Heilig.
Dr. Liberman says seeing Heilig doing great, feels great.
“Seeing that our work paid off and saved someone’s life,” he says. “Seeing him back with his family. Seeing the pictures that his grandchildren sent us. You cannot have a more rewarding experience.”
And John Seebode?
“We’ve been emailing back and forth all year,” says Heilig. “It’s just wonderful to see him.”
Seebode says he was just one of many people who helped John Heilig survive that day, and in the weeks to follow.
“It’s a great feeling, especially when you can have that kind of impact on someone’s life,” Seebode says. “It’s a very humbling experience.”
John Heilig is incredibly grateful, knowing he survived an ordeal many do not.
“I’m here for a reason,” Heilig smiles. “I’m not sure why. But, someday, I’ll find out.”
Until then, John Heilig will just keep saying “thank you.”