SAFETY HARBOR — Joanne Hess remembers the last words her boyfriend spoke after dinner on the night he died for 20 minutes. Warren Sodt crossed his arms and said he had the worst case of heartburn he'd ever had. Then his head dropped to the table and his heart stopped.
Sodt's cardiac arrest didn't happen at home. It was May 6, 2010, and the couple sat smack in the middle of a Friday night crowd at Pablano's Mexican Grille and Bar on McMullen Booth Road in Clearwater.
"It seems to me we had ordered another margarita," said Sodt, 66. "I told my girlfriend about the indigestion, and that was all I remember."
Plenty happened that Sodt doesn't remember. Someone at the restaurant called 911. A family that had just been seated at the next table jumped into action. Rob and Carol Bollenback and their son helped Hess lower Sodt to the floor.
The manager at Pablano's that evening, Juan Yannuzzi, carefully orchestrated the shuffling of diners and tables to make a large open space for paramedics to unload their equipment and work unhindered.
"A complete stranger (Rob Bollenback) told me he knew CPR and gently pushed me out of the way," Hess said. "I was so grateful. I knew CPR, but wasn't in any shape to do it."
In a stroke of luck, the Bollenbacks had been medical technicians in the U.S. Air Force.
"The training came right back," recalled Bollenback, 50. "Fortunately, we were able to get him out of the booth, clear his airway and administer CPR until the paramedics arrived."
A three-man crew from Safety Harbor Fire Station 53 rushed to Pablano's, sirens wailing. Capt. Ray Duke, firefighter/paramedic Charles Russell and firefighter/EMT David Pacheco got there in three minutes.
"We planned who would do what task en route," Duke recalled. "Essentially we do what happens in an ER the first hour, but we make house calls. When we got the patient on the monitor, he was in V-fib (ventricular fibrillation, a kind of heart spasm). We shocked him."
Normally during a cardiac arrest out in the field, the patient is defibrillated no more than three times, Duke said. But the crew shocked Sodt's heart five times, intubated him, injected emergency drugs and kept working on him in the middle of a restaurant for 20 long minutes. They kept at it because their equipment showed he was still well-oxygenated.
Finally, the rescue team found a pulse. Sodt opened his eyes and regained consciousness.
"We were wheeling him out the door of Pablano's and he gave everyone in the restaurant a thumbs-up. They cheered," Duke said. "You see things like that on TV, but not in real life."
As for Sodt's girlfriend, Hess, she feels that the Bollenbacks and the paramedics were angels on earth that day.
Hess couldn't focus on what was happening to her boyfriend, so she tried to pay the dinner bill. But the manager, Yannuzzi, told her no. He even showed up at the hospital the next day to check on them. So did the Bollenbacks. So did Duke.
The other side
Hess credits the medics for working tirelessly and not giving up. "Dave Pacheco stayed with me, kept me informed and was such a calming influence," she said.
Pacheco, who became a firefighter like his father before him, was named Safety Harbor's EMT of the Year in 2000 for helping a woman who had a heart attack in a beauty salon. He was off-duty at the time.
"It's so hard for family members having to witness such tragedy," Pacheco said, recalling Sodt's emergency. "I've been doing this for 20 years and it's the most gratifying thing in the world, an absolute blessing, to have a positive outcome."
Hess remembers being driven to Mease Countryside Hospital in Sodt's car. Carol Bollenback, a total stranger, drove her, and at the hospital refused to leave her side until someone else came to be with her.
When Sodt arrived by ambulance, he signed himself into the hospital and answered questions about his medical history. But he doesn't remember any of this. He doesn't remember giving the thumbs-up at Pablano's either. He only recalls waking up in the hospital 36 hours later.
"I had a heart cath (catheter) and they could find nothing wrong with my heart other than a healed area from a heart attack years ago. Nothing to cause what happened," Sodt said. "They think the electrical signal between my heart and brain stopped. They tell me I was clinically dead for almost 20 minutes."
People ask him what he saw on "the other side," but he's disappointed by the answer he has to give them.
"I happen to be a very metaphysical person. I believe life doesn't stop," he said. "But there wasn't anything there. Boy, that was disappointing, I'll tell you. It obviously just wasn't my time."
After getting out of the hospital, Sodt went to the fire station to thank his rescuers — "something they said rarely happens, which I found amazing."
He learned the firefighters had been saving money to hire an artist to paint a logo — one they designed themselves —- on the fire station.
It just so happens that Sodt's an artist. He has a degree in theater set design. "I told them considering what they'd done for me, I'd be glad to paint their logo and put it up."
He carved out a six-foot wooden sculpture and painted Station 53's logo on it. It took 70 hours. He worked on it whenever he had time off from his job as resident designer for the Francis Wilson Playhouse.
Today, his creation is mounted on the truck bay's wall in the fire station.
"I've been doing this 30 years," said Duke, the fire captain. "I'd never seen anything like what happened to Warren Sodt. Never seen anyone regain consciousness and come back like that, not from a cardiac arrest."
Safety Harbor Fire Chief Joe Accetta says Sodt's story shows the importance of getting paramedics on the scene as quickly as possible: "Safety Harbor's average response time within the city is less than five minutes."
Sodt feels good these days. He had an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) placed in his chest. It prevents his heart from going into ventricular fibrillation, a chaotic rhythm that wouldn't allow the heart to supply enough blood to the body.
Since last year, Sodt and Hess have become like family to the firefighters. Sodt has even promised to paint Safety Harbor Fire Station 52's logo as well. It's his way of giving back.