The intern, who asked to be anonymous, coughed twice, grimaced, stiffened and fell over, gasping for breath. Martin rushed to his intern’s side, thinking he was having a seizure.
In fact, his heart had stopped.
Attorney Mark Hammer, seated nearby, leaped to his feet. Hammer helped Martin ease the intern to the floor, then ran to summon St. Louis County Detectives Thomas Taylor and Jonathan Cooper, who had been standing outside the courtroom.
While Cooper checked to make sure the intern’s airway was clear, Martin did the one thing he could remember being told by his mother, an emergency medical technician.
“I didn’t think to call 911 or get the bailiff or anything else,” Martin said. “I knew one thing to do, and I did the thing:” chest compressions to the rhythm of the Bee Gees’ song, ‘Stayin’ Alive.’”
Hammer had taken and later taught Red Cross CPR training as a student at San Diego State University, some 40 years ago.
“You expect to go your whole life and never use it,” Hammer said.
Until that moment, he never had. But the crisis blew the dust off the decades, and his training kicked in immediately. Working with textbook precision, Martin and Hammer administered chest compressions and rescue breaths until St. Louis County Police Sgt. Bill Muller arrived with a defibrillator.
Muller checked for a pulse: nothing.
Muller ripped open the intern’s shirt to administer a shock and saw a telltale scar running the length of his chest. After being shocked, intern still had no pulse. Martin and Hammer continued CPR.
The vestige of a previous heart surgery and a death rattle rising from intern’s throat darkened an already grim situation.
Muller administered a second shock.
By now, the intern had turned a deep shade of blue, but no one was about to give up.
Cooper took over chest compressions from an exhausted Martin. He was still performing CPR when a team of five EMTs from the Clayton Fire Department burst into the courtroom pushing a gurney.
With a victim unconscious for several minutes, every millisecond counts. One EMT administered a third shock. Another drilled a small hole in the intern’s shin, inserted a large needle and opened an IV line. Another gave him oxygen.
In moments, the intern’s heart began to beat. He gasped and blinked his eyes. He was back.
The intern returned to the Public Defender’s office on July 11. He did not respond to requests for comment about the episode, but court officials said he plans to return to Washington University School of Law in the fall.
Life-and-death experiences are just part of the gig for first responders and law enforcement officers.
For civilians like Martin and Hammer? Not so much.
“It was terrifying,” Martin said. “I really thought he would not come back. I kept seeing his face like it was when he had stopped breathing. He was bluer than I have ever seen anybody. He is alive and kicking now. I can sleep easier. But it was a traumatic experience.”
Martin credits Hammer for taking charge during the 10-minute ordeal and helping him cope with its aftermath.
“Mark had a much cooler head, knew more about CPR and guided me through the whole thing,” Martin said. “Afterward, he helped me process what happened, almost like a legitimate therapist.”
Rehashing the incident with a neighbor who is a physician, Hammer learned the intern had beaten very long odds. Almost 90 percent of people who suffer out-of-hospital cardiac arrests die, according to the American Heart Association. Effective CPR performed in the first few minutes of cardiac arrest, however, can double or triple a person’s chance of survival.
Clayton Fire Department Interim Chief Paul Mercurio praised the fast action of the attorneys and police officers in the critical minutes before the EMTs arrived.
“It is without doubt that the immediate actions that were collectively taken, along with the care provided by the professional fire department responders, effectively saved the life of this man,” Mercurio said. Both the circuit court and the Clayton Fire Department plan to honor the intern’s rescuers in a ceremony later this year.
Feeling vulnerable is not Hammer’s customary state of mind; quite the contrary. But when death makes a cameo, it makes you think twice about life.
“You think you are in control,” Hammer said. “You think you know what you are going to do on a certain day, and then something like this happens and reminds you: You are not in control. We are all fragile.”
Hammer said he feels a deep sense of gratitude — to the intern, to Martin, to all of the professionals who did their jobs that day and to the universe.
“This was one of the most human, humane, meaningful events I have ever participated in,” Hammer said. “It was impossible not to be present, impossible not to care about someone I never even met before. I will always have this deep love for Travis . . . and gratitude for the most profound opportunity I have ever had to help protect someone’s life.
“It was big,” Hammer added. “Very big. I’m not a crier, but I came close.”
Hammer still wonders what led him to stop by Burton’s courtroom at that time, hours before his case was scheduled to begin.
“For some reason, I just happened to be in that courtroom,” Hammer said. “And Travis happened to be there . . . and the EMTs were just a block away . . . and everyone else who helped was there.”
Was it the hand of fate? Blind luck? God?
“I’m not a religious person, but I am a spiritual person,” Hammer said. “This kid was supposed to live another day.”
Burton, who nervously watched the drama unfold at his feet, signed up for CPR and first-aid training for himself and his staff. The court offers Red Cross-certification training three times each month for all employees, free of charge.
Like Hammer, Burton believes some ineffable force was present in his courtroom that day.
“I believe in all that stuff,” Burton said. “There is a reason this happened the way it did. I don’t know what that reason was, but I do know that these guys are heroes. What they did was incredible.”
Christine A. Bertelson is the Public Information Officer for the St. Louis County Circuit Court and a former reporter, columnist and editorial page editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She also has served as communications director, chief speechwriter and senior policy advisor for former Gov. Jeremiah “Jay” Nixon.