When teamwork works: Rock Falls first responders beat the odds to save man who suffered cardiac arrest

911 dispatchers, police, firefighters, EMTs reacted quickly, effectively

Rock Falls Police Chief David Pilgrim, Officer Kristofer Perez and Sgt. Betony Gluff were presented with the Lifesaving Award during the March 19, 2024, Rock Falls City Council meeting for their work responding to a Feb. 14 call.

Editor’s note: This article was written based on in-person interviews, coverage of a Rock Falls City Council meeting and a police officer’s body camera footage. Some content might be distressing to certain readers.

ROCK FALLS – “Automatic defibrillator. Plug in cables. Stay calm. Check responsiveness. Call for help. Adult man. Don’t touch patient.”

The words are robotic, but Rock Falls police Chief Dave Pilgrim immediately obeys, pulling away from the unresponsive form of the man on whom he’d been performing CPR.

“Analyzing,” the automatic external defibrillator says in its robotic voice.

“Is this the first time it’s analyzed?” Rock Falls Fire Capt. Kyle Sommers asks as he approaches.

“Yes,” Pilgrim and police Sgt. Betony Gluff say.

“We just got it plugged in,” Pilgrim adds.

Again, the AED issues instructions: “Don’t touch patient. Analyzing.”

Sommers checks his watch while he and the police officers wait silently for several seconds.

“Don’t touch patient,” the AED orders. “Shock will be delivered in three…”

“We all clear?” Sommers asks as other firefighters and EMTs approach.

“Yep. Clear,” Gluff says.

The AED continues its countdown. “Two… One…”

Tim Isaac was having trouble enjoying lunch – indigestion had caused heartburn that wouldn’t go away.

It was Valentine’s Day, and he had stopped at Arthur’s Deli in Rock Falls with his wife, Linda Isaac, and sister-in-law, Sharon Farber, on their way to a casino in Clinton, Iowa.

“I thought, ‘Get him a Diet Coke,’” Linda recalled during a March 19 interview with Shaw Local. “He goes, ‘No, still not right.’ Gave him a little more, but, ‘No, I’m not going to eat.’”

The two women finished eating and, a little before 12:30 p.m., the trio climbed back into the car to resume their trip.

Linda claimed the front passenger’s seat while Sharon sat in the back. Tim was behind the wheel.

They headed south on Route 40/Hoover Road, intending to get on Interstate 88.

It was less than two minutes before Linda realized the car was accelerating and swerving all over the road. She turned to her husband, asking what he was doing, only to see him slumped over the wheel.

Tim didn’t respond to his wife’s cries for him to wake up.

“He was gray,” Linda said. “He was gone.”

The sisters managed to safely stop the car on the side of the road before calling 911.

At the Twin Cities Communication Center in Sterling, Whiteside County 911 dispatcher Alexis Echebarria answered.

Echebarria – then a 19-year-old with barely nine months of dispatching experience, but whose supervisors praise her as a natural talent – promptly set about tracing Linda’s phone to determine their location.

The Isaacs are Rockford residents, and Sharon was visiting from San Diego, so neither woman quite knew where they were.

Veteran dispatcher Tara Baumgartner jumped into the fray, directing emergency personnel to the scene while Echebarria stayed on the line with Linda and Sharon and guided them through performing CPR.

Echebarria had the women try to get Tim out of the car, but he was too heavy, Linda said. Eventually, Sharon put the driver’s seat back and started CPR while they waited for emergency personnel to reach them.

The first to arrive were Pilgrim and Gluff. Officer Kristofer Perez was close behind.

As soon as Perez exited his squad car, he hurried to help Pilgrim get Tim out of the Isaacs’ vehicle.

“Get the AED out,” Pilgrim called to Gluff while he and Perez carefully but quickly maneuvered Tim out the driver’s door and onto the ground.

Once Tim was flat, the officers hastily yanked open his button-up shirt. Then, Pilgrim knelt and began CPR.

“Here, Chief,” Gluff said, ripping open the AED packaging.

“Let’s get the pads on him,” Pilgrim said. He didn’t stop chest compressions, while Gluff adhered the defibrillator pads to Tim’s chest.

The seconds ticked by.

Finally, the order to not touch the patient came from the AED, and 50 seconds after he had started CPR, a heavily breathing Pilgrim pulled back so the machine could analyze Tim’s heart rhythm.

Rock Falls Fire Department personnel arrived right about then, as did an ambulance from CGH Medical Center.

Sommers – now deputy fire chief – approached.

“Is this the first time it’s analyzed?” he asked.

“Yes,” Pilgrim and Gluff said.

“We just got it plugged in,” Pilgrim added.

Again, the AED issued instructions: “Don’t touch patient. Analyzing.”

Sommers checked his watch while they waited silently for several seconds.

“Don’t touch patient,” the AED ordered. “Shock will be delivered in three…”

“We all clear?” Sommers asked.

“Yep. Clear,” Gluff said.

The AED continued its countdown. “Two… One… Shock delivered. Start CPR.”

Firefighters Matt Oswalt, Mark McPhillips and Cameron Gonzalez and EMT Danny Surdez moved in from where they’d been waiting several feet away.

McPhillips began chest compressions while Gonzalez provided Tim oxygen with a bag valve mask and Oswalt swapped out the AED at Sommers’ instruction.

Surdez and another EMT wheeled a stretcher to Tim.

They waited just long enough for the new AED to determine a second shock wasn’t needed before loading Tim onto the stretcher. Once an automated CPR machine was in place, they took Tim to the ambulance.

Green lights expedited Linda and Sharon’s journey as Gluff escorted them to CGH Medical Center.

“We got to the hospital and were talking to nurses, but the ambulance drove up and the sirens weren’t on and I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s gone. He’s gone,’” Linda said.

Almost 90% of cases of cardiac arrest outside a hospital setting are fatal, according to the American Heart Association.

Tim beat the odds.

Five weeks later, Tim, Linda and their daughter, Angel Gaudry, were in town for the March 19 Rock Falls City Council meeting to witness the first responders who saved his life receive recognition.

“I’m here!” a cheerful Tim told Echebarria while they stood outside the Rock Falls Municipal Complex before the meeting. “If you guys hadn’t done your job, I wouldn’t be.”

It still hurt to take a deep breath, but he wasn’t complaining about broken ribs or a cracked sternum.

“Even if they still hurt for a long time, the fact that I’m still alive, I don’t worry about that,” Tim said when Pilgrim asked how his ribs were healing.

Conventional CPR causes rib and/or sternum fractures at least one-third of the time, according to the American Heart Association.

It wasn’t the first – or even second – time Tim had met several of the first responders, but he said he didn’t really recall the previous visits because he’d been heavily medicated.

Pilgrim had visited Tim at CGH on Feb. 14 after learning that he survived.

“I went to the hospital because I couldn’t go home without knowing what happened,” the police chief said. “I met with Linda and Sharon and asked them to keep me updated about his progress.”

It was good to be able to see people’s actual faces, Tim said.

Tim Isaac, of Rockford, center, stands with his wife and daughter on March 19, 2024, surrounded by the first responders who helped save his life when he suffered cardiac arrest on Feb. 14 while driving near Interstate 88 and Illinois Route 40. In the front row, left to right, are: Angel Gaudry, Isaac's daughter; Rock Falls Deputy Fire Chief Kyle Sommers; Linda Isaac, Tim Isaac's wife; Isaac; and 911 dispatchers Alexis Echebarria and Tara Baumgartner. In the back row, left to right, are: firefighters Mark McPhillips, Matt Oswalt and Cameron Gonzalez; Rock Falls Police Chief David Pilgrim; police Sgt. Betony Gluff; and police Officer Kristofer Perez. Not pictured is CGH EMS Danny Surdez.

After about 15 minutes of visiting, everyone filed into the City Council chambers.

There, Pilgrim presented officers Gluff and Perez with the Rock Falls Police Department’s Lifesaving Award and recognized the firefighters and EMTs for the instrumental roles they played. Whiteside County Dispatch Director Stacie McKinzie presented awards to Echebarria and Baumgartner.

It was a perfect example of teamwork, Pilgrim and McKinzie said.

“It truly was a great team effort, and behind every great team effort is a great leader,” Rock Falls City Administrator Robbin Blackert said, standing with a certificate in hand, ready to present the final Lifesaving Award of the night. “Chief Pilgrim is a great leader and, in this case, he led by example. No hesitation, no scurrying about. He just got to work – and thank goodness he did.”

Blackert had one more thing for Pilgrim: a challenge coin.

“You gave this to me, and you said you give it out to your officers when they go above and beyond or they do something extraordinary,” Blackert said. “I’m giving it back to you for what you did.”

Pilgrim thanked her and then turned to Tim.

“I have a bunch of these, and I want you to have this one,” Pilgrim said, offering the challenge coin. “Being a military member, I’m sure you understand the significance of challenge coins.”

Tim accepted the coin.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“I’m so glad you guys could be here,” Pilgrim said.

Have a Question about this article?
Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner reports on Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties for Shaw Media out of the Dixon office. Previously, she worked for the Record-Eagle in Traverse City, Michigan, and the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.