When training becomes life-saving

Story and photo by Senior Airman Elizabeth Baker
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Tech. Sgt. Levi Owen, 460th Space Command Squadron Detachment 1 noncommissioned officer in charge of civil engineering operations, stands in front of a generator at his workplace Feb. 5 on Kapaun Air Station. On Christmas Eve, 2017, Owen used his cardiopulmonary resuscitation training to give his German neighbor a second chance at life.

When a life-threatening situation occurred in the close-knit little village of Schallodenbach, Tech. Sgt. Levi Owen was not the first to arrive at the scene. Yet, he was the first to respond. He gave a man a chance at life, and Owen believes he has his training to thank for that.

“You’re either trained or you’re untrained,” Owen said. “In the moment of panic, or doomsday, or whatever moment that you have where everything goes crazy, you revert back to your training. That’s how you execute.”

Owen, who is the 460th Space Command Squadron Detachment 1 noncommissioned officer in charge of civil engineering operations, takes annual cardiopulmonary resuscitation training as part of the annual requirements that come with his job. The Air Force requires Owen to know CPR because he works with electricity.

“A lot of people don’t take it [the class] that seriously because no one thinks they’re going to use it,” Owen said.

Three days after taking a refresher course, Owen was walking around his neighborhood with his wife to deliver homemade gifts for their neighbors on Christmas Eve.

“We live in a very small village and all of our neighbors know us,” Owen said.

Owen described seeing some of their German neighbors gathered outside a house. There was a commotion of talking, crying, and screaming. The source of the commotion came into view as the Owens saw the garage.

“A couple of the neighbors were gathered around and shaking a gentleman, who was on the ground,” Owen said. “In that moment I said ‘Oh man, we gotta do something.’ I ran over there and checked for a pulse. There was none. At that point I began doing CPR and rescue breaths.”

Owen’s training immediately took over. He knew exactly what to do, but performing chest compressions can be exhausting. He needed help, the friends and family members of the victim, were shocked and panicked.

Another, calmer neighbor arrived on the scene and learned how to perform rescue breaths by watching Owen. She gave him some of the assistance he sorely needed. Yet, after about 20 minutes of CPR, Owen’s arms burned badly.

“Our village is kind of far out, so the ambulance isn’t going to get there very quick,” Owen said.

Matters were further complicated by the victim’s vomiting, which is a common result of chest compressions.

“It was one of those things where I just had to suck it up,” Owen said. “I did the best I could to keep his airway clear with the finger sweep and turning his head.”

Finally an emergency medic arrived ahead of the ambulance. Together, they continued to perform CPR for another approximate 20 minutes until the ambulance arrived.

“After the ambulance takes him away and everything settles, the adrenaline starts to come down and you realize what just happened,” Owen said.

No one is certain how long the victim went without oxygen. As of the last update Owen received, the victim has not woken yet. Still, the man is alive and stable, and whatever chance he has at life now is due to the two people who stepped up to help.

“The medics said if we hadn’t been there they would have pronounced him dead on the scene,” Owen said.

During the rescue, Owen faced challenges despite having performed his CPR training many times. Yet, he knew what to do and pushed through.

“The actors in the training videos do a pretty good job, but obviously the people in the videos aren’t actually in cardiac arrest,” Owen said. “It changes everything when you experience it in real life. The gargling, the bubbling of the vomit. I know this sounds graphic and disgusting, and it was at the time, but it was one of those things where I had to say ‘Okay, but I know this is going to happen and I know I have to continue. There’s no pulse, he’s not breathing, so let’s open up his airway so we can continue to get this guy oxygen. That’s all that exists right now, is making sure that we can get this guy the best chance that we can.’ While neighbors are gathering around outside and everyone’s calling on the phone and doing their own thing, you zone in and you just go back to your training.”

Owen advised anyone who ever has a chance to go through CPR training or a refresher to do so.

“You never know when the opportunity is going to happen,” Owen said. “I just hope someone would do the same thing for me. I would want a chance to continue a life with my wife and daughter.”

Owen’s thoughts remain with the victim as the situation continues to unfold.

“From my wife and I, our heart goes out to the family and we hope this father and husband wakes up.”