Virginia surfer helps save man in cardiac arrest

Todd and Donna Rowan woke up early Oct. 2. Donna took pictures of the sunrise and drank coffee before the couple hopped on their beach cruisers. They rode from their condominium near Rudee Inlet to Croatan Beach, parked their bikes and kicked off their shoes.

As Donna, 58, and Todd walked barefoot along the shoreline, they watched surfers and dolphins enjoying the water. The waves were big from the remnants of a recent hurricane. Todd, 59, noticed a ship in the distance and birds flying above.

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A perfect Sunday morning, Todd thought. But in an instant, everything changed.

The Rowans couldn’t have known Todd’s heart would stop beating or who would be there to help, but believe what happened that day was meant to be.

At first, Donna thought her husband was joking. Did he just fall face first into the sand?

She quickly realized this was no joke. Todd was turning blue. Donna shook him.

“I screamed his name and screamed for help: ‘God, please help Todd.'”

Tyler Volpe, a surfer, was in the water when Todd collapsed. Volpe is a physician assistant who works in Virginia Beach and lives in Croatia. He was eager to surf that morning because the wind had died down and the waves were glassy.

He was enjoying it so much that he stayed nearly two hours — much longer than planned.

Then, Volpe heard Donna. “I knew it wasn’t a normal scream,” he said.

Volpe saw a body on the sand and several other surfers propping it up. “I came flying out of the water,” he said.

He threw his surfboard down and started sprinting.

Paul Roy, 24, a health care worker at a local hospital, also had been surfing that morning. He was one of the three men already with Todd near the water’s edge.

Volpe saw Todd was blue and started chest compressions. Roy began breathing into Todd’s mouth. Then, they switched positions.

A woman on the beach put her arm around Donna and prayed with her.

“I really thought he was dead,” Donna said.

Volpe asked the two other men to lift Todd’s legs to increase his circulation. As Roy and Volpe continued CPR, Todd gasped a few times.

Tyler Volpe, a surfer, was in the water when Todd collapsed and saved his life.

Tyler Volpe, a surfer, was in the water when Todd collapsed and saved his life.

“Come on, Todd, wake up,” the men said.

The tide was starting to come in. Other surfers used their boards to form a barrier between the rescue effort and the water.

Someone called 911.

“They kept him alive until the ambulance got there,” Donna said. “It could have been two minutes; it could have been 10 days. I was watching my life end with him.”

Todd had gone into sudden cardiac arrest. When paramedics arrived, they used a defibrillator to shock his heart and restore his heartbeat. On the second shock, he regained consciousness, Volpe said.

Cardiac arrest can kill within minutes. Chances of survival increase with immediate help, including CPR.

The Rowans have been married for 34 years. They live in New Jersey but also own the condo near Rudee Inlet because two of their five children live locally, and they enjoy visiting the beach.

When they’re in town, they ride bikes and take long walks. They arrived at the end of September. They planned to drive back to New Jersey that Sunday morning, but decided to first take a walk on the beach.

“Thank God we didn’t leave because it would have happened while we were driving home,” Donna said.

Back on the beach, the paramedics carried Todd over the dunes and through a yard to the waiting ambulance. Donna realized she was still barefoot. A Croatian resident brought her a pair of shoes to wear to the hospital.

Two days later, Todd had quadruple bypass heart surgery.

While he was recovering, Donna posted a message on Facebook asking if anyone knew the surfers who helped her husband — they wanted to thank them.

The Rowans connected with Volpe and Roy via online messaging and texts. Now, Todd is back at his condo in Virginia Beach and regaining his strength.

Volpe reunited with Todd and Donna near a gazebo outside their home. Roy plans to meet them soon, too.

“How are you doing?” Volpe asked Todd.

“I’m doing well because of you,” Todd said.

Donna gave Volpe a big hug.

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“We know that God put you there on the beach with us that day,” she told him. “It could have had a really different ending.”