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Marion firefighters mending hearts and saving lives

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By The Staff

Otto Zimmerman, 57, of Southeast Marion County died – but then lived to tell a tale of survival. About 8 p.m. on March 16, crushing pain radiated across Zimmerman’s chest and up his left arm. He became cold, clammy and short of breath. While most people would dismiss these symptoms as heartburn, Zimmerman’s wife, Barbara took her husband’s condition seriously and immediately called 9-1-1. Her call for help and the events that followed changed the Zimmerman family forever.

Marion County Fire Rescue (MCFR) firefighters from South Forest Station 6 arrived at the Zimmerman home in about five minutes. These dual-certified firefighter/paramedics and firefighter/EMTs accessed his condition and confirmed that he was having a heart attack. Crews provided advanced life support (ALS) emergency medical care, giving Zimmerman medications to help slow the progression of his heart attack.

Meanwhile, an MCFR ambulance housed at Weirsdale Station 27, also staffed with dual-certified firefighter/paramedics and firefighter/EMTs, responded and began transporting Zimmerman with lights and sirens to the hospital. Zimmerman’s condition was worsening and his heart was becoming more agitated.

“This was the scariest moment of my career,” firefighter/paramedic Pablo Echevarria said. “Zimmerman had all the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, and we thought he would crash on us any second.”

To prepare, Echevarria hooked Zimmerman up to a LifePak 12, a professional grade defibrillator that enables emergency responders to jumpstart the heart. Zimmerman then told firefighters that he suddenly had a severe headache and felt like he was going to faint.

Only seconds later, he was unconscious, his heart was no longer beating and he was no longer breathing.

Since the firefighters were already prepared for this moment, they immediately enabled the defibrillator and shocked Zimmerman just once, saving his life.

They also provided cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

 “It was like second nature,” Echevarria said. “The experience we receive through training is just embedded in our minds. We did what we had to do, and it went very smoothly.” Zimmerman responded to the advance life support care, regained a pulse and started breathing again.

Doctors unblocked Zimmerman’s clogged artery and credited Marion County firefighters and their quick response with saving his life. But firefighters say Zimmerman’s wife Barbara helped change the outcome of the emergency. Barbara Zimmerman immediately called 9-1-1, enabling firefighters to get on scene quickly. Often people hesitate, which can have deadly consequences.

That’s why MCFR firefighters want to remind citizens to call 9-1-1 immediately, if they think they could be having a heart attack. Heart attack symptoms can include chest pain, weakness, nausea and sweating.

“Many people wait too long to call 9-1-1,” Lt. Bill Thomas of South Forest Station 6 said. “They think it is heart burn and are in denial.”

But waiting to call 9-1-1 can be deadly. Heart attacks occur when the blood supply to part of the heart muscle is severely reduced or stopped because one or more of the heart’s arteries is blocked. Heart attacks can cause cardiac arrest (when the heartbeat stops), which can lead to brain death. Brain damage, much of which is irreversible, can occur within four to six minutes of the heart stopping.

Firefighters say that heart attack victims must receive CPR and defibrillation within a few minutes of the attack. CPR helps keep blood flowing to the heart and brain, and defibrillation can stop the abnormal, erratic heart rhythm and allow the heart to resume its normal rhythm. The chances of survival are reduced by seven to 10 percent every minute of delay, if no CPR or defibrillation is provided.

Time is Muscle – MCFR Prepares for National EMS Week

Calling 9-1-1 immediately in case of a possible heart attack is so important that MCFR is dedicating May 17 to 23 to celebrate National EMS Week. As part of the department’s campaign, “Heart Is Muscle,” firefighters will educate citizens on cardiac emergencies and the importance of taking immediate action.

Heather Danenhower is the Public Relations Manager for Marion County Fire Rescue. You may reach her at (352) 291-8000 or

heather.danenhower@marioncountyfl.rog.