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News | 22 days ago

Second Chances: A Heart-Stopping Moment at Charlotte Douglas International Airport

From Cardiac Arrest to Survival: Business Owner Saved by Quick-Thinking of former Atrium Health Nurse at CLT Airport.

It was a typical day at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, buzzing with the flurry of summer travelers navigating busy terminals. Among them was Ken Jeffries, a seasoned traveler and business owner from Jacksonville, Florida, who was mentally preparing for a softball tournament he was set to umpire in Knoxville, Tennessee. Ken, familiar with the routine hustle of catching connecting flights, moved through the airport with a practiced ease.

On the same morning, Claire Cerbie, a former Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute nurse was also navigating the same terminal. Claire was en route to a business meeting, her mind on the day ahead. Despite her focus, her training in critical care never rests—she is always attuned to the world around her.

As travelers around them discussed flight schedules and coffee options, with announcements periodically cutting through the hum of conversation, both Ken and Claire were unaware of how significantly their paths would intersect in just a few moments.

Ken, having just checked into his gate, settled into a seat to wait for boarding. He texted his daughter, who is a flight attendant for an airline, a simple update—a moment of connection amid his travel routine.

“I texted her at 6:27 a.m.,” Ken recalls. “I told her I got a seat and was boarding in 35 minutes.”

That message would be the last thing he remembered before his world went dark. 

Right place, right time 

Nearby, Claire, ever observant, noticed a man—a couple of rows over—making an unusual noise, like snoring, but somehow strained. Something felt off. As the noises grew more concerning, the airport’s pulse seemed to slow around her. Claire’s training kicked in as she moved toward the sound, her mind shifting from the day's agenda to the emergency unfolding before her.

“I didn’t know if he was having some sort of seizure or hypoglycemic event, but when I got over to him, he was out,” Claire said. “He was making a snoring noise and I felt for a pulse. But there was no pulse.”

Claire and another passenger got Ken down on the ground. Claire immediately recognized the signs of cardiac arrest and sprang into action. She initiated CPR, a vital intervention that kept oxygen flowing to Ken's brain and other vital organs. Meanwhile, another bystander retrieved an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) which Claire used to deliver a life-saving shock to Ken's heart.

The dramatic rescue unfolded in less than ten minutes—a brief period during which the swift actions of Claire and other bystanders saved Ken's life.

"We did two rounds of CPR until the defibrillator was ready,” Claire said, recounting the tense moments. “After the shock, his heart started beating on its own again."

Ken was rushed to Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center, where he received immediate cardiac care from the team at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. Dr. William Downey, an interventional cardiologist, performed a catheterization and placed a stent to address the blockage in one of the arteries supplying Ken’s heart that caused his cardiac arrest.   “Without CPR and proper use of the AED, this would have been a far sadder outcome” said Downey. “ Unfortunately, less than 10% of those who suffer cardiac arrest outside the hospital survive, . However, immediate CPR can double or even triple a cardiac arrest victim's chance of survival.”

By the next morning, Ken was up and walking—a testament to the rapid and effective treatment he received, as well as the critical initial response at the airport. 

"I was walking the halls by Saturday morning, feeling good, almost like nothing had happened,” Ken said. “It's just miraculous. The care was immediate and effective—it truly saved my life. I'm incredibly grateful for the quick actions of everyone at the airport and the medical team at Atrium Health.”

The role of Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute 

Ken's story highlights the crucial role of community readiness and medical proficiency in handling cardiac emergencies. Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute stands at the forefront of cardiac care, not just in treating heart attacks and cardiac arrests but in educating the community and health care professionals.

Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute is a leader in the management and treatment of STEMI (ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction), a severe form of heart attack. It has pioneered techniques and protocols that have substantially improved outcomes for cardiac patients across the region.

"Ken's remarkable recovery underscores the critical importance of swift and expert intervention in cardiac emergencies," said Dr. Hadley Wilson, an interventional cardiologist at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute and former president of the American College of Cardiology. "Our team at Sanger is committed not only to advancing the practice of STEMI protocols but also to ensuring that our community and health care professionals are well-equipped to respond effectively. The success of our protocols and training programs is reflected in our performance and the prestigious recognitions we have received, highlighting our role as a leader in cardiac care."

In 2023, Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute performed 10,549 percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) procedures and has received numerous prestigious awards, including multiple platinum and gold recognitions from the American College of Cardiology-NCDR Chest Pain and American Heart Association Mission: Lifeline registries at Atrium Health Cabarrus, Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center and Atrium Health Pineville.

“Our commitment to excellence in cardiac care is reflected in its advanced treatments and our ongoing efforts to educate the public about lifesaving techniques like CPR and the use of AED,” Wilson said. 

Reconnecting with a guardian angel 

Ken's experience serves as a poignant reminder of the unpredictability of cardiac events and the profound impact of having the right skills and tools at the right time. It also underscores the importance of community awareness and training in CPR and AED use, which can dramatically increase survival rates in such emergencies.

Claire's quick response, rooted in her extensive training and experience, was instrumental in this positive outcome.

"It reminds me why I became a nurse," Claire said. "To make a real difference. To save lives."

In reflecting on his ordeal, Ken has a newfound perspective on life.

"Every day is special now. I'm grateful for each one I get,” Ken says.

Ken plans to advocate for more widespread CPR training and AED availability, hoping to turn his personal trial into a campaign for greater public safety. 

“You get a newfound perspective, and I don’t take anything for granted anymore because this happened in a split second,” Ken said. “If it wasn’t for the people there knowing what to do and how to do it, I may not be having this conversation. My wife might be planning a funeral; it puts things in perspective for sure.” 

Ken was able to reconnect with Claire on the phone and have a heartfelt conversation about the incident. Ken expressed his deep appreciation to Claire for her role in saving his life.

“She’s my guardian angel,” Ken said. “Talking with her was very emotional for me because I had the opportunity to connect with the person who basically saved my life." 

In a poignant reflection of the gratitude felt by those around her, Claire received a surprise gesture of appreciation herself.

"My daughter informed me that the airline bumped Claire up to first class on her flight,” Ken recounted with a smile. 

This act of kindness not only recognized Claire's heroic actions but also highlighted the community's capacity to acknowledge and honor those who step forward in times of need.

As Claire settled into her first-class seat, this kind gesture was more than just a comfortable ride—it was a recognition of how she made a real difference.

"It was really awesome to see that what I did actually helped,” Claire said. “I was able to help someone stay alive.”

Learn more about Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute.