Off-duty doctor comes to aid of German woman

by Chuck Roberts
Landstuhl Regional Medical Center Public Affairs

Donald Bittner has been a doctor since 1981, but the Navy
captain had never practiced medicine like he did March 26 while driving to a local restaurant with his wife.

They were passing through the village of Bann when they noticed several people crowded around a man performing CPR to an elderly woman beside the road. When he approached the scene and announced he was a physician, the daughter told him the woman was her mother and had collapsed only a few minutes prior.

Bittner quickly assessed the woman who was not breathing, had no pulse and had turned blue. After succeeding in opening an airway blocked by her dentures, Bittner performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and assumed control of CPR procedures with the help of the initial responder who assisted when he became fatigued from the continued effort.

After about 25 minutes an ambulance arrived and they were able to assess she was in ventricular fibrillation, which is when a weakened heart flutters or quivers and is unable to pump blood. However, the defibrillator in the ambulance was inoperable to apply the needed electrical shock to restore the heart. 

Bittner continued CPR until a second ambulance arrived and the defibrillator was successfully applied to initiate a heartbeat, a pulse and resume breathing on her own.

The patient was taken to nearby St. Johannis Krankenhaus where the Bittners visited about an hour later and met the emergency room doctor who said the patient was in stable condition but had transferred to Westpfalz Klinikum in Kaiserslautern for further care.  It was there that Dr. Bittner met with the family and received a tearful, grateful hug from the daughter. He said they were the ones he was thinking of as he performed CPR and his wife Leticia held the IV bag above.

“My concern was for the family,” said Bittner. “I saw my own self in that situation, and the feeling of helplessness the family must have felt in being there. It really made me feel bad for them that they had to witness that.” 

Although Bittner said he has performed CPR a few times during his career, to include reviving a patient in the operating room who had gone into cardiac arrest, it was the first time while off duty.  “In a hospital you have that sterile setting. When you’re outside the hospital it’s a whole different thing. It’s not sterile anymore.

You become actually involved with the family, so the whole emotional experience is completely different.” The timing of the incident, said Bittner, proved interesting. Just four days prior he completed a basic life support refresher class that included new procedures he applied on the scene.

The events also happened soon before his scheduled departure from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center where he is serving a one-year rotation as deputy director for Navy Expeditionary Medical Unit 12 supporting the wartime effort in treating Wounded Warriors.

“For me it was a culmination of my time here because I felt so good to be able to give something back to the German community that has been so nice to me,” said Bittner.