At 4 p.m. on Sept. 16, Allison, a 22-year-old lifeguard from West Hartford, had just gone off duty and was chatting with fellow lifeguard Carter Hatton when a man hurried out of the Cornerstone fitness room.
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Town resident Russell Sirman had been doing sit-ups when he heard a thud behind him, by the treadmills. It didn’t register at first — then came “an odd sound, like someone snoring away,” recalled Sirman, 46, a teacher at Classical Magnet School in Hartford.
“Sir, are you all right?” he asked Leach. Within moments of the initial thud, Sirman ran to the lifeguards standing near one of the center’s pools.
“It only takes a half-second between seeing him coming and knowing whether it’s going to be a serious problem,” Allison said.
The night before, Allison had grumbled to pals about his “uneventful” life. He graduated from the University of Connecticut a few months ago as a history major, and didn’t think he’d be back at Cornerstone, a town-owned swimming center operated by the company Aquatics for Life. In his six years as a part-time lifeguard, Allison told his friends, “I’ve never even had to pull someone out of the water.”
But now Allison and Hatton, 19, were beside the unconscious man, a West Hartford resident and Cornerstone regular who had been running the treadmills three times a week for the past seven years to strengthen his heart.
Somehow, Leach became lodged between an elliptical machine and a treadmill after his collapse.
“That was a bit of a curveball,” said Hatton, of Farmington, who had only been on the job for several months.
Hatton radioed for the front desk to call 911. Not long afterward, Dan Stowe walked past the desk on his way to give private lessons at one of the pools. Stowe, a 28-year-old veteran lifeguard from South Windsor, ran to the fitness room. Allison, Hatton and Sirman had already pushed the exercise machines apart and pulled Leach to the center of the room.
As the younger lifeguards checked for vital signs, Stowe ran to get the automatic defibrillator stationed about 40 feet away.
Allison and Hatton were initially wary of moving Leach in case he had a spinal injury from the fall. But his face was turning a deeper blue, and his hoarse breathing sounded as though it would cease in a matter of seconds.
The two began a round of CPR — Hatton gave roughly 30 chest compressions and Allison attempted to give two rescue breaths — as Stowe returned with the defibrillator less than two minutes after Leach’s collapse. To prepare for the defibrillator, Hatton cut open Leach’s shirt.
That’s when they saw the long scar down Leach’s sternum. The college professor had undergone major heart bypass surgery 10 years ago.
His rescuers now presumed he had experienced either a heart attack — when one or more of the arteries is blocked — or cardiac arrest, a different event in which the heart abruptly stops beating and blood pressure drops to nothing, halting blood circulation and oxygen to the brain and other organs. Ventricular fibrillation, when a heart rhythm suddenly becomes uneven and chaotic, typically causes cardiac arrest.
Those with a history of coronary disease are more likely to be stricken.
“I had very, very little expectation of him surviving this,” Allison said.
Stowe has been a lifeguard for 10 years, but never had to resuscitate a victim until Sept. 16.
The AED instructed him to administer the electric current. “I hit the button,” Stowe said; Leach’s body appeared to jolt. “After the shock, you could actually see color going back to his face.
“This individual, Eugene, was definitely a fighter, because he was struggling,” Stowe said, “and he kept struggling.”
The electric current reorganized Leach’s heart rhythm enough to keep him faintly breathing. Hatton continued chest compressions as Allison and Stowe attempted to give rescue breaths.
“Four minutes, three seconds after the call came in, we were on scene and paramedics were behind us,” Allyn said.
The emergency medical technicians took over and injected Leach with heart stimulants, intubated him to open his airway, and shocked him four times with their own defibrillator before rushing him to the University of Connecticut’s John Dempsey Hospital.
The morning Leach was eased back into consciousness, he began reading The New York Times.
Six days after the collapse, Leach was released from the hospital with full neurological recovery and an internal defibrillator installed in his chest.
Leach remembered running on the Cornerstone treadmill, engrossed in an audio book of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” streaming through his earbuds.
“A really beautiful reading of a great novel, and I was having a great time,” Leach said from his West Hartford home. “Then I fell over like a tree.”
The professor is taking it easy now. The five days after the cardiac arrest are lost somewhere in his memory, but he is gaining strength and has shed at least a dozen pounds.
He goes for walks with his Labrador retriever, Melanie, in their Beverly Road neighborhood. Although on medical leave from Trinity, he has resumed his detailed, written critiques of master’s theses, and has returned to his own book project on Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and the American dream.
About a week ago, Leach and his wife, Kathy Frederick, met Allison, Hatton and Stowe in the Cornerstone lobby and gave each an iPod Nano, colored red for the heart, as a small token of their thanks.
“No band, no banner,” Leach said. “They didn’t make speeches. They assured us that they did what they were trained to do.”