Shirley Bennett was going through the jury duty selection process at the Arapahoe County Courthouse when officials called a recess. She and other potential jurors walked into the hallway.
“I remember walking outside (of the courtroom) and sitting on a bench,” Bennett said. “And I remember waking up four days later.”
Between the moments she remembers, Bennett, who is 69, went into cardiac arrest. Thanks to the rapid response of dozens of court deputies and other bystanders on scene that day, she is alive to tell the story.
On March 9, Bennett returned to the courthouse to express her gratitude to the first responders who saved her life in February by performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
“I don't know you all one by one or name by name, but I love you and appreciate you,” she said. “You’re in my prayers and you’re in my thoughts. I know we hear the prayers and thoughts thing so much with all the tragedy and things that happen. But I mean that from my heart — no pun intended — that I love you, I appreciate you.”
At the event, South Metro Fire Rescue recognized 19 Arapahoe County law enforcement officers for their efforts in helping save Bennett’s life.
Sgt. Robert Chase, one of the first people to arrive on the scene of the emergency, was among those recognized.
“It was clear that Shirley was having a pretty significant medical event,” he said. “(We) could tell right away — we assessed real quickly — that we needed to start CPR. So that’s what we did, and more people started showing up as well.”
Chase said the emergency happened during the courts' lunch break, making it possible for many deputies, who otherwise would have been in trials, to respond to the scene.
Several officers performed CPR on Bennett while others gathered witness statements and cleared pathways in preparation for South Metro Fire Rescue’s arrival. They performed CPR for about 10 minutes before paramedics and emergency medical technicians arrived.
Bennett had two more heart attacks that day, one in the ambulance and one at the hospital.
Jens Pietrzyk, division chief of emergency medical services at South Metro Fire Rescue, told the group at the March 9 event that his department sees about 500 cases of cardiac arrest per year. Of that, only about 10% end in full recovery like Bennett’s case did.
One of the most important factors in being able to successfully resuscitate someone when they have cardiac arrest is early intervention.
“When somebody gets to the hospital after cardiac arrest, if they've had early CPR, if they've had early interventions, then we have something that we can work with,” Jonathan Apfelbaum, medical director for South Metro Fire Rescue, said to the group. “But the time between when something happens and the time that they get there — if it's not for people like yourselves, there's nothing we can do.”
Deputy Mike Gentry, who was one of the first on scene, said he’s performed CPR numerous times during his 13 years on patrol.
“She's the first one that we actually brought back,” he said.
Mitchell Kohl, a practicing attorney and a medical doctor, was walking out of a nearby courtroom when he saw the commotion.
“I got over there, took off my tie, got my sleeves rolled up and just started helping,” he said. “I will tell you, I wasn’t confident in the outcome.”
Bennett was unresponsive, not breathing and had no pulse. Deputies used a bag valve mask to help with breathing and employed an automated external defibrillator, which didn’t call for a shock. Eventually, her pulse returned. South Metro Fire Rescue paramedics gave Bennett a breathing tube and she began to move.
"Jury duty saved my life"
In Kohl’s eyes, Bennett’s attitude is one of the reasons she survived.
“There's been evidence that shows having a good attitude in your recovery helps patients recover quicker and better,” he said. “And she's a perfect example — her attitude’s infectious. And if there were more people with her attitude, the world would be a better place.”
Bennett said she hopes her experience inspires more people to get trained in CPR, as it truly can save lives. Before it saved hers, she started the CPR training program at RTD, where she worked for almost 40 years.
“I just wish it’s the kind of thing that everyone could learn to do,” she said. “I'm very much a proponent of CPR, first aid, and all of those types of things. And I never knew it would go full circle and come back — that one day I would need it, and I had a whole band of angels there who came to my rescue.”
While most people dread receiving a jury summons, Bennett will never look at that civic role the same way.
“People have said ‘I’ll do anything to get out of jury duty,’” she said. “Jury duty saved my life — because if I had not been at jury duty at that time, I would have been at home alone. And the outcome could have been totally different.”