A group of off-duty EMTs and an off-duty police officer who all happened to be eating at the same Rahway restaurant sprung into action to save a man choking on his food Monday night.
The six medics and the officer were dining at The Waiting Room in Rahway, when the man began choking on a piece of steak around 9:30 p.m.
Elizabeth EMT Amber Henderson, 27, was the first to notice.
"I happened to look over and saw a woman standing up and hitting a man on the back," she told Daily Voice.
Henderson stood up slowly to see if the man was able to get the food out, but noticed very quickly that wasn't the case, she said.
"I ran over and started doing the Heimlich, and a small chuck of food came out, but he was still choking -- and there was much more [food] left inside," the EMT said.
Just as Henderson began wondering how she was going to save the man all on her own, off-duty Rahway officer Eddie O’Donnell realized what was happening.
Without hesitation, O'Donnell jumped up, ran over and introduced himself as a local police officer and took over for Henderson.
"Whatever was lodged in that man's throat wasn't coming out," O'Donnell said.
Remembering that he saw off-duty Elizabeth Fire EMS medic Justin McGee at the table next to his, O'Donnell called out for his help from across the restaurant.
McGee took over as O'Donnell called the police desk requesting an ambulance, the officer said.
As fate would have it, several other off-duty medics were also at the restaurant, and they rushed over to help. Those include Peter Dudek (JFK EMS EMT), Elizabeth Buckridee (JFK EMS Paramedic), Jacob Kay (JFK EMS EMT) and Andrew Buchanan (former JFK EMS Paramedic, current South Metro Colorado Fire Fighter Paramedic).
Each EMT took turns doing the Heimlich and trying to dislodge the chunk of food for what O'Donnell said felt like eternity.
"The [victim] started getting weak in the legs and was falling, and the Heimlich doesn't work unless you're standing," said O'Donnell, a 20-year veteran of his department. "We realized CPR would have to get started."
One medic ran to their car to get some equipment, including a suction machine. Others began utilizing the AED supplied by the restaurant.
The first responders also were provided with a pulse oximeter to monitor the victim's oxygen levels.
"Within a very short amount of time, on-duty officers started showing up," the officer said.
The off-duty responders used equipment from on-duty firefighters to maintain the man's condition, Henderson said.
"We were breathing for him and suctioning whatever food we could get out."
By the time the ambulance came, the victim was packaged and ready to go on a backboard.
"Once the on-duty [crews] arrived I bowed away to give them room to continue, but stay to support in any way I could," O'Donnell said.
"We put him on a backboard got him on the gurney to the ambulance, where responders continued to further work on him."
Eventually, a large piece of steak was removed from the man's throat in the ambulance, and he was taken to the hospital for further treatment, according to O'Donnell and Henderson.
Henderson said she is thankful other medics were there to help do a job that would have otherwise been very difficult to do on her own, she said.
"It was coincidental that we were all at the same restaurant," she said. "It was good we were all able to work together because ultimately, that's probably what saved that man."
"It was just being in the right place at the right time -- or more or less right restaurant at the right time," the officer added.
Elizabeth Fire EMS Supervisor Carlos Gomez said he was "not only amazed" by the medics' responses, but that the situation "speaks volumes of their character and how quickly they reacted and worked together to the situation that thankfully saved this persons life.
"Even in a pandemic they didn't hesitate putting their life at risk to save another."
Rahway Police Chief John Rodger says he has no doubt O'Donnell would spring into action in situations like this.
"This was a team effort of off-duty medics on their own time, who didn’t shy away from responding to this emergency," Rodger said. "This man is going to be able to walk out of the hospital soon because of their quick actions and they should all be commended for it.
"It's a really good thing to see."
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