Customs agent saves dying man at Atlanta airport


Customs agent saves dying man at Atlanta airport

John Seebode was interviewing newly arriving passengers in the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when he heard yelling about a passenger collapsing.

Standing about 30 yards away, Seebode, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the airport, rushed to the side of John Heilig, 66, who had just landed on a flight from Hong Kong and was on his way home to Florida.

Heilig was non-responsive. Seebode immediately started performing CPR. Co-workers got a defibrillator, and Seebode used it to deliver an electrical shock to try to help return the heart rhythm to a normal heartbeat.

Once stabilized, Heilig was rushed to Emory University Hospital Midtown, where an emergency catheterization team, led by Dr. Chandan Devireddy, was waiting and ready for Heilig. He was treated for a complete blockage of one of his three main coronary arteries.

Heilig has been in the hospital recovering since the Dec. 11 emergency, and on Wednesday, Seebode visited Heilig for a third time in the hospital. Heilig could be discharged from the hospital as early as Thursday.

“I couldn’t ask for any better,” Heilig said. “He gave me the gift of life for Christmas.”

Heilig, a computer technician who lives near Cape Canaveral, Fla., was heading home on Dec. 11 after making a work trip to Hong Kong. Heilig, who had suffered a heart attack about 10 years ago, said he felt fine on the flight and had no indication of going into cardiac arrest. The last thing he remembers before collapsing was exiting the plane and getting in the customs line in the international terminal.

“That’s the last thing I remember,” said Heilig, wearing a pale green hospital gown and all smiles during Wednesday’s visit, “and then the next thing I remember is being in the hospital.”

Seebode, who has worked in the Atlanta field office for about two years, said he had heard that Heilig was doing well, but it was important for him to see the man in person. The first time Seebode went to visit Heilig on Dec. 15 was actually quite scary. As Seebode rounded the corner to Heilig’s room, he learned that Heilig had suffered a blood clot and was going into cardiac arrest again. Heilig underwent more treatment, and doctors say his prognosis is good.

Seebode returned on Christmas Eve to visit Heilig, who, by then, was on his way to making a full recovery.

“It’s one thing to hear about a positive outcome, but to follow up like this makes it more meaningful,” Seebode said. “I am elated more than words can express. I am thankful he can celebrate the new year with us.”

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