2 Marines Collapsed from Cardiac Arrest on the Same Day. These First Responders Were Awarded for Saving Them.

1st Sgt. Peter Battershall speaks with the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Eric Smith
First Sgt. Peter Battershall (left) speaks with the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Eric Smith (right), at the annual D.C. Fire and EMS awards. (Courtesy D.C. Fire and EMS and Connor Studios/Photo by Michael Connor)

Jennifer Miller was approaching mile 17 of the 2023 Marine Corps Marathon when she saw a man collapsed on the grass near the Lincoln Memorial.

"I had just seen him laying there and nobody else was around him, which was really alarming," Miller, 33 and a registered nurse, told Military.com on Friday. The man's color was pale, his breathing was labored, and his pulse was weak. He was unresponsive.

"Immediately, it wasn't about the race anymore," she said. "I was in nurse mode and doing everything I could to assist."

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Miller called for help and began CPR. At the time, she didn't know anything about the man she was working on besides his bib number -- 13111. A bystander, trying to find contact information for the man, grabbed his phone; the screensaver showed a picture of a young girl, which turned out to be one of the collapsed runner's two daughters.

"I don't know who this guy is or the relationship of this girl to him, but I have to do everything I can to make sure he makes it home," Miller told the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Service Department, also known as D.C. Fire and EMS, in a recorded interview. "Whoever this person is, they're important enough to be on his phone screen, and that was important to me."

    The man on the ground at the Oct. 29 race turned out to be 1st Sgt. Peter Battershall, a Marine assigned as a leader to the wounded warrior unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. He was one of two Marines saved by bystanders and first responders that day, the other being the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Eric Smith, who collapsed near his home after the race.

    Their cases were strikingly similar -- two fit Marines who had underlying congenital heart defects that contributed to their cardiac arrest while running. Both were saved by a combination of professional emergency services and good luck, and both lived to tell about it without any neurological symptoms, which can be common after such medical emergencies.

    On Friday at Dock 5 in the Northeast section of D.C., those who helped save their lives were honored at the annual D.C. Fire and EMS awards, a celebration of first responders who helped those in need with heroic actions. In a sea of 400 attendees, the blue of the first responders' uniforms stood out at the event. But several sets of Devil Dog dress blues were also apparent in the crowd, a show of support and thanks as bagpipes and the Marine Band played.

    "This is a fantastic opportunity to thank the too-often unsung heroes of the emergency services," Battershall told Military.com at the event. "I didn't know who rescued me. I didn't get an opportunity at first to meet these people, to have closure with these people. But this was an opportunity to do exactly that."

    Battershall, who was 38 years old when he collapsed at the race, doesn't remember hitting the grass outside the Lincoln Memorial. After Miller, the nurse, performed CPR on him, he was transported by emergency services, who gave advanced lifesaving measures in an ambulance.

    Firefighter EMT Steven Robert, 27, was one of those first responders. He was only a few hundred feet away from Battershall when he heard the call come over the radio. He recalled the day getting hot later in the race when Battershall collapsed, but -- in his 10 years of experience as an EMT -- it was business as usual.

    "He got [automated external defibrillator] very quickly, he got CPR very quickly," Robert told Military.com. "You look at the statistics -- that's what saves lives."

    Robert and his partner, firefighter paramedic Christopher Agbobli, loaded Battershall into the ambulance and gave him additional care before transporting him onto a U.S. Park Police helicopter for transport to the hospital. Battershall said that he remembers bits and pieces of this, but specifically signing an agreement for a procedure "to find out really what happened because nobody knew at that point."

    Like the commandant, it was cardiac arrest from a congenital issue. Battershall told Military.com the contributing factor in his heart was an arterial deformation, which required an invasive procedure to discover after his collapse.

    "Everyone worked together flawlessly," Robert said. "We had the nurse that was on the scene who I wasn't familiar with. There were a couple of bystanders that were helping with CPR, and everyone kind of just fell right into their place with never really having worked together before."

    The whole thing happened in minutes, Robert recalled, and between the skilled bystanders and on-scene medical professionals, there was an element of fate that contributed to the save, one eerily similar to that which rescued the commandant later that same day.

    Smith was running near his home at Marine Barracks Washington when he too collapsed. A pair of siblings were out to lunch nearby and ran toward a man -- unknown at the time -- who was unresponsive on the sidewalk. Timothy LaLonde, one of the bystanders, happened to be a certified CPR instructor.

    "I am so grateful, but all the things that had to line up. It's just truly a miracle," Trish Smith, the commandant's wife, said in an interview with D.C. Fire and EMS, noting the happenstance that the LaLondes were so close by. "Just the whole thing is really crazy; I guess it wasn't his time."

    Smith and Battershall were two of 72 cardiac arrest saves by the D.C. Fire and EMS team in 2023. Their cases were particularly successful because, as Robert explained, when a cardiac arrest happens, critical oxygen normally transported by the rhythmic beating of the heart no longer reaches the brain, which can result in neurological aftereffects.

    But for the two Marines, that didn't happen. They are back to full duty status, the commandant back in the seat as head Marine and Battershall, who has been in the Corps for 18 years, helping wounded Marines either stay in the service or successfully transition out of the military at Walter Reed.

    According to several paramedics and firefighters, it is uncommon but special to meet the people whom they rescue.

    For Robert, he's met "one or two patients over almost 10 years. ... It's very rare that you get to meet those people. It's very rare that you get to have a conversation with them," he said.

    On Friday, they got a chance to meet in person for the first time. Miller, the nurse and also a military spouse to an Air Force major, connected with Battershall's family through social media. At Dock 5, their kids -- one of whom was the girl on Battershall's phone -- were coloring and playing together.

    "It's very emotional because that day could have gone differently," Miller said. "And it makes me feel really good that their dad is still around and that he's healthy, because sometimes with CPR, the outcome isn't the greatest even if they are still present here."

    For Battershall's save, several first responders received the Meritorious Pre-Hospital Care Award. Robert and his partner Agbobli were honored, as well as rescue technicians Sgt. John Demyanovich, Sgt. Daniel Glendinning, and pilot Sgt. Robert Usher of the Eagle 2 Park Police team. Navy hospital corpsman Marco Estrella was honored, and Miller received the Cardiac Arrest State Challenge Coin for her efforts.

    The first responders who were recognized for helping to save Smith's life are named Lt. Holly O'Byrne; Sgt. Mark Johnson; firefighter EMTs Carla Castillo, Joseph Trossbach, Curtis Davis and Ryan Crowell; and firefighter paramedic Justyn Moore.

    "I'm the luckiest guy on the planet; first sergeant is the luckiest guy on the planet," Smith told Military.com on Friday after the event. "You get a little choked up. The dedication that these guys put in, these men and women, it's very Marine-like. I recognize the spirit and the esprit de corps that they have because we have it within the Marine Corps.

    "We're in the business of taking lives; they're in the business of saving lives," he said. "And I think theirs is a more noble calling."

    Editor's note: This story was updated with additional personnel who were awarded for saving the commandant's life.

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