Lifestyle & Human Interest

Strangers Spring Into Action After Man Goes Into Cardiac Arrest at Airport


Rita Gregory and Julieanne. Doreen Lundberg. Cory Woods. Charlene Oliver. Dr. Margot Vloka.

Those names meant nothing to Don Wolfson of Jacksonville, Florida, before July 29, 2015, as they likely mean nothing to you at the moment. But hindsight is 20/20, and looking back, Wolfson can trace a constellation of providence between those stars after very nearly losing his life.

Generally, when Wolfson travels, he tends to keep to himself. But on July 29, 2015, on his way to a business meeting in Boise, Idaho, he chatted with the two ladies seated next to him, the first decision that would prove to be life-saving.

“I usually mind my own business,” he told WJXT, recalling that day six years ago. “I will either read, I will sleep or I will do some work.”

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But on that day he got to know Rita Gregory and Julieanne, Gregory’s adult daughter who had just gotten married. Wolfson’s own daughter was about to get married, so the trio had some similarities and chatted during the flight.

Trouble started as soon as the flight ended. Wolfson, who has no history of heart disease in his family, technically died after stepping off the plane. He told WJXT that he remembers feeling dizzy, but he brushed it off.

“For some reason, I started to fall,” he said. “The doctors subsequently told me at that time, I was clinically dead. My heart had completely stopped.”

The second important connection took place after he fell. Doreen Lundberg, a flight attendant, walked out of a nearby bathroom at that moment and spotted Wolfson.

“I ran over to him, everybody was, you know, just walking on past,” she said. “I could see he was in distress … I wasn’t hearing a breath … we had to start CPR.”

She directed someone else to call 911 while she began compressions — something she knew how to do quite well, as her job requires yearly CPR recertification.

But Lundberg wasn’t even supposed to be in that place at that time. She wasn’t there for work; she was there because she was flying to visit her mom, but she’d been bumped from both her first and second flights, putting her right where Wolfson needed her.

Then Cory Woods joined the scene. He’d heard screams for help and ran over.

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“I kind of jumped up to see what I could do,” he said. “Conveniently enough between me and the situation, there was an AED that was mounted on the wall.”

“It kind of all became real, within about 2 minutes of me being there and the AED doing what it needed to do, there were signs of life.”

Also conveniently enough, Woods happened to be a Red Cross Instructor. He wasn’t supposed to be in the airport at the time, either.

Woods had been traveling with a group going fly-fishing, but their flight had been overbooked. He opted to take a later flight, so the rest of the group could stay together, placing him near the spot where Wolfson collapsed.

During the ordeal, Rita and Julieanne saw Wolfson collapse and were able to identify him, so the airline was able to contact his family.

Charlene Oliver, a supervisor, was the one who ended up calling Wolfson’s wife and giving her and one of her daughters free tickets to get to Boise, so they could care for Wolfson.

First responders soon arrived to take Wolfson to the hospital, where he’d need emergency surgery to implant a defibrillator. Wolfson was understandably concerned and called his cardiologist back home to discuss the operation.

While speaking to his cardiologist, he mentioned the name of the doctor treating him in Idaho.

“I said her name is Dr. Margot Vloka,” Wolfson recounted.

As it turned out, his cardiologist not only knew her but had a great deal of respect for her.

“I studied with her at Columbia,” Wolfson’s cardiologist in Florida said. “She has a dual fellowship. She is brilliant.”

So Wolfson went ahead with the surgery, and it was a success — but he knows it wouldn’t have been possible without Lundberg and Woods.

“Absolutely, I would not be here,” he said, explaining how the situation would have been different had those two had not been present. “There is a 2-minute window to survive.

“I am in the 1 percent category that had no damage, no heart damage, no brain damage. That 2-minute window is critical, and if those people just called 911 (and not performed CPR), I would have been taken away, and I would have just been another statistic.”

He’s since thanked his “angels,” knowing that each one of them had a crucial role to play that day.

“I don’t tell other people what to believe or what to — who to believe in,” he said. “But I really believe that there were, there was something … very significant that had interceded here. I believe in the — the angels were sent to save me. It was just not my time to die.”

Rita Gregory and Julieanne. Doreen Lundberg. Cory Woods. Charlene Oliver. Dr. Margot Vloka.

Because of them and a large dose of divine intervention, Wolfson lived to dance with his daughter at her wedding and meet his grandson, who arrived a few years later — gifts that he’s especially grateful for this Thanksgiving.

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