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Brothers Saving Brothers

Brothers Saving Brothers

Mike Polaski, who underwent rehab at Riverside Methodist Hospital, said he plans to return to the Columbus Division of Fire in several months, then retire in two years. [Columbus Fire Department]

Columbus Dispatch via YellowBrix

August 23, 2010

He was promoted to lieutenant in 1981. Seven years later, he crawled through smoke and flames to save a 3-year-old child. The city honored him for his actions.

Polaski has been in thousands of fires and doesn’t mind that plans for the sporting goods business fizzled. Firefighting, he said, is his calling.

He settled into the life of a firefighter and husband to his wife, Vicki.

The two live on the North Side and are raising their two grandchildren, Alyssa, 12, and Aiden, 7.

In the smoke-filled basement, firefighters rushed to Polaski’s side.

They shook him. No response.

Did he slip and fall? Did he hit his head?

Firefighter training includes a “saving your own” scenario – steps to take to get a downed firefighter out of a fire quickly and safely. The rescue crew in the basement that night are the instructors who teach this scenario to others in the Fire Division.

Four of them dragged Polaski to the narrow, steep steps.

They put a safety strap around his chest, and two firefighters – Jeff Ross and Vasbinder – grabbed hold. Pence put Polaski’s legs over each of his shoulders, and King carried from the middle.

Their hearts raced as they carried the lieutenant’s limp, 230-pound frame and 60 pounds of fire equipment, which got stuck on the stairs.

They took off his coat and unfastened the air bottle from his back.

At the top of the stairs, they took off his mask.

“That’s when it hit me he was in cardiac arrest,” Pence said.

Polaski’s skin was reddish-blue; his eyes were wide open and dilated, Vasbinder said. They all had seen that look before.

Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death among on-duty firefighters in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Of the 82 firefighters who died on duty last year, 35 suffered cardiac arrest.

Paramedics started CPR and hooked Polaski up to a heart monitor. They placed an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose.

Defibrillator leads were placed on his chest, and paramedics pushed the button to shock his heart.

Still no beat.

Battalion Chief Kevin O’Connor, who was in charge of the fire scene, came to the front door and ordered the paramedics to take Polaski outside in case the fire was still going in the basement.

“There were about a thousand things running through my mind in 30 seconds,” O’Connor said. “I had to get Lt. Polaski out of the basement. I had to administer the crews on the scene to make sure they didn’t get hurt. I had to not let the fire extend.”

Paramedics continued CPR as they put Polaski in an ambulance. Every firefighter there wanted to ride along, but only Pence did.

The rest stood on the porch, in the yard and street in front of 1831 Robert St. and watched the ambulance drive off.

In the back of the ambulance, paramedics put a breathing tube down Polaski’s throat and gave him drugs to start his heart.

They used the defibrillator two more times.

“We got a heart rate at (North) Broadway and I-71,” said paramedic Tim Barton. “We did CPR through most of that. He broke a few ribs during CPR.”

The ambulance pulled up to Riverside Methodist Hospital at 11:30 p.m., 17 minutes after the “mayday” call had gone out.

Dr. Gregory Decker was on duty that night in the emergency department. He said Polaski was unconscious, and his heart’s electrical activity was erratic.

Emergency department staffers shocked Polaski’s heart again to slow its rate. They scanned his head and chest and drew blood.

An EKG showed that his heart was not damaged even though it had temporarily stopped pumping blood. The test was repeated to make sure.

Polaski had some blockage in an artery.

Then doctors decided to lower Polaski’s body temperature. Studies have found that cooling cardiac patients can increase survival rates and reduce the risk of brain damage.

Cold saline was pumped into Polaski’s veins, and nurses wrapped him in a cooling blanket to bring his body temperature down to the low 90s.

Then he was put in a coma.

Vicki Polaski was watching TV when the phone rang about 11:45 p.m. “I didn’t know who it was, but (he) told me Mike was in the hospital and they were sending a car for me,” she said.

The drive to the hospital was a blur.

When she walked into the emergency department, a dozen or so firefighters were standing in the hall and in a nearby room.

Firefighter Don Honeycutt, who picked her up at her house, walked Mrs. Polaski past the firefighters to her husband’s room.

“He was cold, funny-looking – like gray and ashen – with tubes and all these things on him,” Mrs. Polaski said.

Decker told her what had happened, what the tests showed and their treatment plan for her husband.

The emergency department became more crowded with firefighters and city officials who had heard the news.

“I remember Mayor Coleman being there and wondering why he was there,” Mrs. Polaski said. “He was standing right beside me, hugging me. The whole hall was lined with people.”

Once the cooling was started in the emergency department, Polaski was moved to the intensive-care unit, and the dozens of firefighters followed him to the fifth floor.

“It was like never-ending firefighters; they never left his side,” said Dr. Howard Kander, the cardiologist who treated Polaski.

The last Columbus firefighter to die fighting a fire was John W. Nance. He died July 25, 1987, after falling through the floor of a burning building Downtown.

Doctors kept Polaski’s body temperature cool for the next 24 hours before they started the warming process.

That Monday, Kander inserted a catheter to unblock the artery behind Polaski’s heart and a stent to keep it open.

He woke up on Wednesday. Vicki told him he had been there for three days.

“I told him we pulled him out of the fire,” King said. "But he thought he was pulling someone out – like he was overhead.

“That still sends shivers down my spine.”

Polaski’s last memory of that night was when his wife and grandkids came to the fire station to pick up pizzas.

“I wish I could tell you a great story of where you die and see a great light, but I don’t have any memory of it,” he said.

Doctors implanted a defibrillator near Polaski’s heart to shock it into service, if necessary.

He returned home six days after collapsing in the house on Robert Street.

“It was unbelievable how well he did,” Kander said. “Most people don’t recover that quickly.”

Had Polaski gone into cardiac arrest after he returned to the station and his own room after the fire was put out, the outcome might have been different.

“It happened in the very, very best place it could have because it was with guys who knew what to do and had the equipment to do it,” Polaski said. “And, boy, did they do it.”

They did it so well that the Columbus Division of Fire is using the experience as a training tool on what worked with the “saving your own” procedure, Battalion Chief O’Connor said.

“In the house, there was no screaming and yelling going on, everything went smoothly,” he said. “Each one of those people knew exactly what to do.”

Polaski agrees.

“They set the gold standard in saving our own that night,” he said. “There will be (fire) departments across the country that will try to learn from this.” Polaski finished cardiac rehabilitation but will return to work after he recovers from hip-replacement surgery that he had put off. He plans to return in several months and retire in about two years.

In the meantime, he’s enjoying the time with his family and is a frequent visitor at Station 16.

“Evidently, it wasn’t my time,” he said. “Why it wasn’t my time, I can’t say. There must be something I’m left to do.”