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Nursing alumna Amber McPhail uses campus AED unit to save OLLI member’s life

HUNTSVILLE — For Amber McPhail, an afternoon of routine at the University of Alabama in Huntsville Faculty and Staff Clinic turned into anything but on one fateful day in April 2017. That was the day a life-and-death emergency struck like a spring thunderbolt on the campus.

McPhail, a UAH alum, is the director of Student Health Services and interim director of UAH Health Services. Five years ago, Patricia “Miss Patti” Patrick was attending a group discussion two floors down as a member of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Neither of them could have guessed how dramatically their lives were about to intersect, a moment in time they both will likely remember for the rest of their lives.

“I have been a member of OLLI for several years and have taken a number of classes,” Patrick said. “On that day, I was taking a class called Socrates Café where we discussed current controversial events. We had discussed a lot of things politically for a year or so, and this was the very first day of spring class, one o’clock on Monday, April 17, 2017.

“I was sitting there in my wheelchair, and I started the class by saying I had finally found something I agreed with the president about! And then I died.”

Meanwhile, McPhail was tending to an ordinary office visit with no idea of the drama unfolding below her, when someone burst into the clinic.

“I was in the FSC clinic seeing a patient, when our office manager came to get me out of the exam room,” McPhail said. “She said that Mrs. Altenkirch was here and said someone had passed out downstairs on the first floor.”

“Mrs. Altenkirch” turned out to be none other than Beth Altenkirch, wife of then-UAH President Robert A. Altenkirch. She was there attending the same OLLI course as Patrick.

“I followed Mrs. Altenkirch down to the lobby where Miss Patti was sitting, slumped over and gasping,” McPhail said. “I couldn’t feel a pulse, so I moved her over to the carpet to lay her down to check her ABCs (airway, breathing, circulation/pulse). I directed one of the OLLI staff to go get the AED.”

An AED (automated external defibrillator) is a portable device used as a rapid response method to save lives during a cardiac arrest. Once switched on, the lightweight device provides the operator with step-by-step voice instructions.

“She was barely breathing, and I couldn’t feel a pulse,” McPhail said. “So I immediately applied the AED pads to her chest and turned on the device. It announced that it was analyzing and said not to touch the patient.”

Once the AED had rapidly completed its analysis of Patrick’s condition, it was time to signal the defibrillator to deliver its lifesaving jolt.

“It said, ‘Shock Advised, please clear the victim,’” McPhail said. “I then cleared her and pressed the ‘shock’ button which delivered a defibrillation to the patient. After that, it told me to continue with CPR/chest compressions. I started chest compressions and at that same time the EMTs arrived.”

Fast forward to 2022, almost exactly five years after the incident, and Patrick showed up recently at the clinic for her COVID booster shot.

“It was so great to see her again, and she is as sharp as ever,” McPhail said. “It shows you what a difference CPR can make! She’s had five years added on to her life and is still going strong!”

That fact is thanks in large part to McPhail’s cool nerves and quick thinking, with an assist from medical technology and her training, Patrick’s life was saved.

“Amber had never been able to meet people she had helped save,” Patrick said. “My brother found her, and I got to meet her. She’s great! It’s really something to be able to hug the person who literally saved your life because of her training and desire to do that.

“Now the people at OLLI laugh about it, saying they will use me as promotional material! I told them, just make sure you spell my name right!”

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