Hall County firefighter says on-the-job cardiac arrest, 6-day coma came ‘out of the blue’

Credit: Hall County Fire Services / GoFundMe

Credit: Hall County Fire Services / GoFundMe

When Jonathan Barton went to work Feb. 11, he was looking forward to finishing his last day of modified duty as a Hall County firefighter. He had recently undergone knee surgery and was ready to get back to his full workload.

Instead, the sergeant found himself in a medically induced coma the next day, fighting for his life without even knowing it.

“I kind of remember eating lunch, but then I remember nothing after that,” he told AJC.com. “I woke up six days later.”

From exercise to the ER

He was helping out a recruit class with physical training and conditioning and was in the middle of an exercise. Since he doesn’t remember anything that happened, he’s relying on his coworkers to tell the tale.

“After a couple of rotations of the exercise, I started not feeling good, getting sick,” Barton said based on the accounts of his fellow firefighters. “One of the recruits came over and checked on me, but I was nauseous and vomiting.”

He said it wasn’t abnormal for him to get sick during an exercise — he would usually grit his teeth and push through the temporary sickness.

But this was not temporary.

“They said I made it one more round of the exercise, and that’s when I passed out and went unconscious,” Barton said.

Luckily for him, Barton realized something was wrong and pulled out his cellphone before he passed out. He called a superior to say he needed a paramedic and a heart monitor.

“Initially, he thought it was a student and had no clue that it was me,” Barton said.

He later learned that one of the artery walls within his heart ruptured, causing him to go into cardiac arrest.

He knew his family has a history of heart-related issues, which included his grandfather dying from a heart attack when his mother was 11. Two of her uncles also suffered heart attacks at fairly young ages, he said.

While he knew he had high blood pressure, which was likely genetic in nature, Barton didn’t expect this type of health issue to creep up so soon.

“This just hit us out of the blue, with no warning whatsoever,” he said. “It was tough to deal with.”

Credit: Hall County Fire Services

Credit: Hall County Fire Services

‘Things got very serious very quickly’

While Barton was being taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Canter, his wife, Jessica, received a call from his captain. She didn’t recognize the number, so she let it go to voicemail.

Her phone translated the voicemail to text, and it didn’t take long before she realized something bad had happened.

“I started reading the voicemail, and I saw that it was Captain Arnold and that there had been an accident at the training center,” she said. “I don’t think I finished reading all of the message.”

She wasn’t too worried yet, thinking the injury was related to his knee surgery, but a phone call from another firefighter raised alarms. Barton’s coworker, who was trying not to cry, said she needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

“At that point things got very serious very quickly,” Jessica said. “It was no longer his knee. My 38-year-old husband was going into cardiac arrest, and they were working on him.”

A firefighter picked her up and took her to the hospital’s emergency bay, which is where emergency room patients are dropped off. She said she saw a sea of blue uniforms.

Jonathan was in critical but stable condition and necessitated a medically induced coma. Doctors tried to bring him out a few times, but he would continually have to be put back under.

Credit: Courtesy Jonathan Barton

Credit: Courtesy Jonathan Barton

Jessica stayed by his side during his week in the cardiac care unit, supporting him as best she could. That included reminding her husband of his intensive training.

Barton is a Georgia Smoke Diver, meaning he has completed a grueling program meant to push firefighters to their physical limits. Jessica placed a coin bearing the program's name over his hospital bed so he would see it when he awakened.

“I hung it over his bed in an effort to keep him calm, to remember his training and to think through what’s going on,” she said. “I think that really helped him.”

Many questions

For the first few days, Jonathan’s status was shrouded in uncertainty. Doctors told Jessica he likely suffered brain damage or at least some permanent loss in heart function.

“There was a two- to three-day stretch where the doctors didn’t know if I would come out of it, or if I did, what my quality of life would be,” Jonathan said.

The first few times Jonathan woke up, he couldn’t retain information. Jessica compared it to the movie “50 First Dates,” a romantic comedy about a man trying to woo a woman with short-term memory loss.

Jonathan would try to write down his thoughts, which started out jumbled and nearly illegible, but the handwritten letters improved with time. In addition, the couple was able to communicate some by using diving hand signals.

Credit: Courtesy Jonathan Barton

Credit: Courtesy Jonathan Barton

The couple’s two children, 3-year-old Vivian and 7-year-old Maverick, were not allowed to see Jonathan during this time, since machines were the primary thing keeping his heart pumping.

“All Vivian knew was daddy is sick in the hospital. To her, it wasn’t that big of a deal, because she was used to me working weekends (as a firefighter),” Jonathan said. “For Maverick, he was old enough to understand. I told (the staff) to not have him see me hooked up to all those machines.”

With abundant questions, the kids were allowed to see their father during his second week in the hospital.

Credit: Courtesy Jonathan Barton

Credit: Courtesy Jonathan Barton

He required a full second week due to issues with his kidneys. He had to undergo dialysis several times while medications were adjusted. Jessica said he was hooked up to three IVs containing about 14 medicines at one point.

“I was losing about a pound a day,” Jonathan said. “When I would go to dialysis, they were just cleaning my body, but they weren’t removing any fluid. My body wasn’t producing fluid.”

Credit: Courtesy Jonathan Barton

Credit: Courtesy Jonathan Barton

The incident was not only taking a toll on his body. It was shaking his world view.

“I had questions,” he said. “I had some issues with my faith and my other beliefs for a few weeks, and I had to bring in several people whom I respect, like my father and my (church) small group leader.”

Those talks, and the generous support of his community, helped boost his spirits.

‘Faith, family, fire’

A GoFundMe page, which was set up by one of Jessica's sorority sisters from college, ended up raising more than $17,000 to go toward medical bills. Another one of her sorority sisters was a member of Jonathan's medical team, keeping the family up-to-date on his progress.

Firefighters were also a constant sight inside the hospital. During the first two weeks, Jessica said she was almost never alone.

“The firefighters never left the hospital,” she said. “There was always someone there, someone off-duty or as they got off work. They would always be there with me.”

Jessica said there’s a mantra, “Faith, family, fire,” which describes the order of priorities among many firefighters. She said this incident proved that, since they received support from firefighters all across the country after word broke of her husband’s condition and lengthy road to recovery.

What did not help Jonathan's rehabilitation was the COVID-19 pandemic. Like most things, he would perform his rehab at home.

“I actually did not see a doctor face-to-face for about three months during COVID,” he said.

Using exercises and other rehabilitation techniques, Jonathan and his cardiologist aimed for him to return to work in June, which is exactly what happened.

On June 23, which also happened to be Maverick's 8th birthday, Jonathan donned his uniform and returned to the department without any limitations.

Sgt. Jonathan Barton has returned to work after 133 days! Here are some photos of his welcome back! Thank you to...

Posted by Hall County Fire Services on Tuesday, June 23, 2020

By Monday, he was running a 5K with younger coworkers, his wife boasted.

“He has no heart damage. You don’t know how unlikely that is,” she said. “So that was crazy, but for him to make a full recovery given everything he went through is nothing short of a miracle.”

The couple credit that to the quick and proficient work of Jonathan’s fellow firefighters and the county’s paramedics. Both said that he “was exactly where he was supposed to be that day.”