Firefighter’s Journey From Near-Death to On-Duty

Published: Thursday, August 26, 2021

When the calendar turned to February 11, 2021, it wasn’t just another Thursday. It marked an important day for all of Hall County Fire Services (HCFS). As a tight-knit team, they never miss an opportunity to celebrate a birthday, especially the 37th birthday of Firefighter and EMT, Chris Rexroat.

But for Rexroat, and his longtime friend and colleague, Sergeant Jonathan Barton, this year’s celebration represented so much more. Just one year ago, Barton, Rexroat and the HCFS Training Center team experienced a life-altering event they never saw coming. Something they would never forget.

A Look Back: February 11, 2020

On the afternoon of February 11, Barton and Rexroat were in the midst of training a new class of recruits, which involved running them through physical exercises at the Burn Building located at the HCFS Training Center.

After completing several rounds of the exercises, Lieutenant Cory Pritchett, received a call from Barton asking for him to get Matt, Jonathan Cannon and a heart monitor down to the Burn Building – and then the call dropped.

Jonathan Cannon, paramedic, and Matt Roberts, training officer, didn’t waste any time, immediately grabbing the heart monitor and going down to the Burn Building. But they had no idea what they would find when they got there.

When Cannon and Roberts pulled up, all they could see was Rexroat and several of the recruits starting assessments on a body that laid lifelessly on the ground. It wasn’t until they ran over that they could see it was one of their own, 38-year-old Jonathan Barton.

“He was an entirely different color of purple,” reflects Rexroat. “You could hardly recognize him. There just aren’t any words to describe how it feels to see your friend in that state.”

After quickly assessing Barton and checking for pulses, it was confirmed – his heart had stopped beating. Immediate CPR was initiated while the rest of the team worked to start IV’s, administer medications and manage his airway and breathing. Jonathan’s heart was found to be in a lethal arrythmia called ventricular fibrillation, and multiple shocks were delivered in attempt to restore his heartbeat.

“In that moment, it felt like an eternity had passed waiting to get Barton in an ambulance and on his way to Northeast Georgia Medical Center (NGMC),” says Pritchett. “But in reality, this all happened in a matter of minutes – and there was never any doubt in my mind that these guys did everything right for him.”

In Transport

As the HCFS team continued to deliver critical care and transport Barton emergently to NGMC Gainesville, there was still one person that had no idea what had just happened – his wife, Jessica.

“I remember looking down at my phone that afternoon and seeing a call from a phone number I didn’t recognize,” explains Jessica. “And when I read the transcribed voicemail, my heart sank as I read that an incident had occurred at the training center.”

Still processing what the next steps were, and what this meant, Jessica called some of Barton’s closest colleagues at Station 8 and learned that something unimaginable had happened and she needed to get to the hospital – and quickly.

“So much of that day and night are still a blur,” says Jessica, “but I can still vividly remember a sea of blue uniforms when we pulled up to the hospital – the support the HCFS team showed was immeasurable and exactly what I needed in that moment.”

Emergency Cardiac Care

When Barton arrived onsite at NGMC Gainesville, he was quickly taken from the Emergency Department to the Cardiac Catheterization Lab within minutes. Thanks to the STEMI and pre-hospital cardiac arrest processes in place at NGMC, the Emergency Department and Interventional Cardiology teams were ready and waiting to administer care to Barton as soon as he arrived.

“When taking care of patients who suffer from pre-hospital cardiac arrest, collaboration and effective communication between the EMS providers and the receiving hospital is crucial,” explains Kyle Powers, critical care paramedic and regional outreach coordinator for Northeast Georgia Health System (NGHS). “We are constantly talking with EMS during these emergency events to ensure that our hospital teams are ready to deploy the appropriate resources as quickly as possible. This deep interdependence and teamwork at every step of the resuscitation and care process makes all the difference – it’s what enables us to ensure the best possible outcomes and save lives.”

That coordination paid off. When Barton was rushed to the Cardiac Catheterization Lab, imaging quickly revealed a completely blocked left anterior descending artery (LAD), one of the major arteries of heart. NGMC’s Interventional Cardiology team worked quickly to open or relieve the blockage, along with implanting an Impella cardiac pump device to assist with perfusion, which helps to circulate blood while the heart recovers.

“While everyone involved in treating Barton worked hard and delivered excellent care without hesitancy, there was still a lot of uncertainty surrounding his outcome,” explains Cannon. “During the first 24 hours, we lived off updates from the hospital teams to see how he responded to care.”

Slowly but surely, Barton continued to progress. There was still a lot of doubt surrounding what his mental state would be or if he would have any deficits, which isn’t uncommon for cardiac arrest survivors.

“The real turning point for me was during the first few hours after he had regained consciousness,” recalls Jessica. “I was in his room, holding his hand, and he squeezed it three times, which symbolizes ‘I love you.’ That’s when I finally knew – he was going to be okay.”

Moving Forward

Barton’s recovery continued to move quickly. While it wasn’t easy, he made big strides and fought to overcome all the struggles and difficulties of healing from a heart attack and cardiac arrest. And he did. Just two weeks later, Barton was released to go home. Of course, the entire HCFS team and his family were there for the occasion.

“It was amazing getting to see him walk out of that hospital,” says Pritchett. “Just a few weeks before when we brought him to the hospital, we truly had no idea what the future would hold. This was the best possible outcome we could’ve hoped for.”

When looking back at everything that unfolded on February 11, Jessica is still amazed at all the moving pieces, care processes and teams that came together to save Barton’s life. “There truly just aren’t enough ‘thank yous’ to go around,” says Jessica.

Barton’s story is a powerful reminder of the vital deep interdependence between NGMC and the EMS services in Hall County, and throughout the region – and the life-saving impact it can have.

“When someone experiences cardiac arrest outside of the hospital, just like Barton did, the chances of survival are less than 10 percent,” explains Powers. “The chain of survival really starts with high-quality CPR and early defibrillation. Nothing we do at the hospital is possible or effective without that immediate response from those who witness the events – it can double or triple a patient’s chance of survival. In Barton’s case, our expert teams were able to build off that strong initial resuscitation effort and provide the advanced interventional care needed to get him back to his family – and back to living.”

Now, with more than a year between him and his cardiac arrest, Barton hasn’t missed a beat. He completed his return-to-work evaluation on June 22, 2020 and has been back on duty ever since. He’s even continued his work with training new recruits for HCFS this year.

“Recovery has been an interesting road. Looking back on the past year, there has been a lot of uncertainty, but the care and support I’ve received from my doctors has been amazing,” says Barton. “They’ve listened to all my concerns and helped me get back to my normal, and, for that, I’m eternally grateful.”

Understanding & Preventing Cardiac Arrest

While there are more than 350,000 cardiac arrests in the U.S. each year, it’s still a widely misunderstood condition. Oftentimes, when people think about emergency cardiac events, heart attacks are the first to come to mind. However, there are important differences between these two conditions.

“Cardiac arrest occurs when heart function and beating suddenly stops – this also results in a loss of breathing and consciousness,” explains Nima Ghasemzadeh, MD, FACC, interventional cardiologist with Georgia Heart Institute. “On the other hand, a heart attack occurs when one of the coronary arteries becomes blocked, impacting blood flow to the heart; however, the heart continues to beat.”

Although cardiac arrest and a heart attack are unique conditions, in some cases, the two can be related, like they were for Barton. When a coronary artery becomes blocked, this can trigger an electrical disturbance in the heart, ultimately causing the heart to stop beating.

“Unfortunately, cardiac arrest is often sudden and unexpected,” says Dr. Ghasemzadeh. “That’s why taking steps to recognize and respond to cardiac arrest is vital for everyone – regardless of age. I encourage everyone to learn more about the signs of cardiac arrest, such as sudden collapse, ineffective breathing and no pulse, as well as learning CPR, which can truly be life-saving.”

A story like Jonathan Barton’s is a powerful reminder to everyone that you’re never too young to learn more about heart health and to understand your risk factors. While individuals may not be diagnosed with heart disease until their fifties or sixties, the damage and causes of disease start when they’re much younger.

“Disease prevention is especially important for those with a family history of heart disease or cardiac events. With advanced screening modalities, such as CT calcium scoring and CT coronary angiography, we can identify potential atherosclerotic heart disease even sooner, while also taking steps to address it with personalized treatments and healthy lifestyle changes.”

As the first hospital in Georgia to earn the designation of Emergency Cardiac Care Center, we’re providing the highest level of care, as quickly as possible, to save and improve lives. When it matters most, you can trust Georgia Heart Institute to deliver happier, healthier tomorrows.

Learn more about Georgia Heart Institute.