Central Services employee Harold Walters was having lunch with his wife in the West Tower of Torrance Memorial Medical Center when he began to hear a woman coughing at a table on the other side of the room. “I thought: Her coughing doesn’t sound normal,” Walters says.
He wasn’t concerned until he noticed the woman’s companion trying unsuccessfully to perform abdominal thrusts. Although it had been more than five years since Walters had taken a CPR class, in which he learned the Heimlich maneuver to help dislodged food in a choking victim, he was surprised to find his training came back to him almost instantly. Within seconds, he was running across the room, pushing the companion aside and thrusting upwards into the choking woman’s abdomen.
“It’d been so long, but somehow I knew what to do,” he says. “You have no time to think, with someone’s life in your hands.”
For Pattie Mann, a registered nurse in Clinical Quality, Walters’ arrival could not have come too soon. She’d been discussing an upcoming project with a vendor when a piece of a french fry became lodged in her throat. Her colleague tried to help, but her efforts soon proved futile, and Mann even tried applying chest thrusts on herself by throwing herself against the edge of a table.
“The fear was immense,” Mann recalls. As a nurse, she had seen first-hand the brain damage that can be caused by asphyxiation, after more than a minute without air, she was about lose consciousness. Her vision was already going dark when Walters reached her. “All of a sudden, I felt these huge, muscular arms come around me,” Mann says. Despite her panic, she forced herself to be calm, relax her body and stay alert.
“I gave her about seven or eight thrusts, and then I saw something flying from her mouth,” Walters says matter-of-factly.
For Mann, however, the experience was more profound. “As soon as I could breathe, it was . . . extraordinary,” she exclaims. “I turned around and looked at [Walters], and I will never forget his face. It was the face of an angel.”
Ironically, both Mann and Walters had chosen to have lunch at the end of the lunch rush, when few people are in Helena’s Café. Other than café staff and a few visitors, the room was empty of its usual host of doctors and other medical staff. Thus Pattie Mann’s life was saved by the last man she’d expect while sitting in the middle of a hospital, just down the hall from dozens of medical professionals.
In fact, Walters wasn’t even working that day. He had been on leave since March 31, the day his sister was tragically killed by a drunk driver. She’d been on her way home from work when a driver rear-ended her car while she was stopped at a red light.
“It was devastating,” Walters says. “We were very close—only a year and a half apart—like twins.” He took a leave of absence during this difficult time, yet he continued to visit the West Tower café once or twice a week to have lunch with his wife. He never expected that so soon after losing a life, he’d be saving someone else’s. “Maybe that was God’s gift to me,” Walters says.
Since September, Walters has been back at work, happy to resume his role as part of the Central Services team. Each day he helps with decontamination and sterilization processes throughout the hospital, and he knows that his job saves lives—albeit indirectly. “Sterilization is very important to the hospital and the patients,” Walters explains. “I love the job that I do.”
He recently received a certificate of recognition for his lifesaving actions, and while he is modest about his accomplishment, he wants to encourage all people to take CPR training and learn to use an AED (Automated External Defibrillator). After all, you never know when that knowledge might come in handy.
Although Walters is still grieving the loss of his sister, he is doing his best to appreciate the simple things in life. He enjoys spending quality time with his three children and watching surfers from the break wall at Redondo Beach. He especially likes to fix old cars, and his current pet project is the restoration of a ’69 Pontiac Firebird.
“It’s time to get this car on the road,” Walters says—but it isn’t just the car he’s referring to.