JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. ― A trip to the races could have been deadly for East Tennessee State University pharmacy professor Charles Collins if circumstances had been slightly different.
Collins, exiting Bristol Motor Speedway in March with a group of family and friends after a series of rain delays during the Food City 500, collapsed onto the pavement, suffering from a massive heart attack.
He doesn’t remember the events of that day or the previous Saturday, but his son later recounted to him the story of the young woman and man who performed CPR on him and saved his life.
When his heart stopped, Collins’ son told him he said something that sounded like “Help me” before he fell to the ground.
“I had a backpack on, so I didn’t hit my head when I fell,” Collins said this month, sitting at the back entrance to the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy. “I suppose at that point, I was having an atrial flutter.”
Lying on the damp pavement, a crowd formed around him as he stopped breathing and lost consciousness. No one nearby seemed to know what to do.
Exiting the gate a few yards away was Kristin Lester. She saw the agitated commotion ahead and the man lying on the ground.
“I thought surely, somebody was already doing something, and as we got closer, I heard a woman say ‘He’s turning blue, he’s not breathing,’” Lester said. “That’s when I knew—there was nobody else, it was going to be me that day.”
Lester, coincidentally an ETSU pharmacy student, was trained in emergency medical procedures, a requirement for all students. She had been recertified just a few months prior to the incident at the speedway.
She and a worker at the track, Rob Ferguson, began administering chest compressions and breathing into Collins’ lungs to keep his brain alive.
“It’s not like it is in the movies,” Lester said. “You expect to get some kind of response, but you don’t.”
After a few short moments of eternity later, emergency medical technicians arrived and resuscitated Collins with a defibrillator. They hurried him off for specialized treatment at nearby Bristol Regional Medical Center.
Doctors kept Collins in an induced coma for several days and treated him with protective hypothermia, lowering his body temperature to reduce the potential for damage to his brain.
The following week, a school administrator announced in Lester’s class that one of the college’s professors had suffered a heart attack during the weekend.
And something clicked in her mind.
“As soon as he said it, I knew it was Dr. Collins,” she said of the professor whose lectures she had attended in previous school years. “I guess at the time I was just so focused on what I knew had to be done, I just didn’t recognize him.”
Doctors discovered four vessels surrounding Collins’ heart had been nearly blocked by built-up plaque. He underwent bypass surgery and was discharged in late March to recover at home.
His physician said he should be strong enough to return to teaching in a few more weeks, but Collins visited campus last month to meet with the student who saved his life.
“I’m happy to be here ― I’m just happy to be anywhere at this point,” he said. “And I couldn’t be more proud of Kristin.”
Lester shrugged off the notion she was a hero, saying simply that she was doing what she was trained to do.
“Really, I just feel blessed that I was there and able to help,” she said, marveling at the precise course of events that put her and Collins in the same vicinity at that exact moment. “It was like all the little details fell into place and added up to be perfect.”
Collins said the occurrence made him an even bigger proponent of mandatory emergency procedures training for students than he was previously.
“From now on, when students ask ‘Why do we have to do this,’ I can stand up and say, ‘I’m why you have to do it,’” he said. “If a person at a pharmacy fell to the floor, they would need to know how to handle the situation.”
Lester, although not currently taking one of Collins’ courses, said she still had two years left before graduation, meaning she could be sitting in his lecture hall again soon.
If that happens, Collins joked that the demonstration of learned techniques might earn her an “A” for the course.
“We might be able to work something like that out,” he said with a smile, looking over at the lifesaving student.