A year after cardiac arrest, Willie Hatchett plans return to AJC Peachtree Road Race

Willie Hatchett (in gray shirt) near the finish line of the 50th running of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race on July 4, 2019. Three years later, Hatchett went into cardiac arrest about a mile into the running of the race. He received quick help from a police officer and three physicians. He survived and has plans to run in the 2023 AJC Peachtree Road Race. (Photo contributed by Willie Hatchett)

Credit: Photo contributed by Willie Hatchett

Combined ShapeCaption
Willie Hatchett (in gray shirt) near the finish line of the 50th running of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race on July 4, 2019. Three years later, Hatchett went into cardiac arrest about a mile into the running of the race. He received quick help from a police officer and three physicians. He survived and has plans to run in the 2023 AJC Peachtree Road Race. (Photo contributed by Willie Hatchett)

Credit: Photo contributed by Willie Hatchett

Credit: Photo contributed by Willie Hatchett

Willie Hatchett doesn’t remember running The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race last year. He knows he signed up. He’s seen his bib. He has selfies on the train into Buckhead from his home in Ellenwood. A friend from work remembers him bolting from the starting line, hoping not to get caught in a pack of runners.

Hatchett doesn’t remember any of it.

Atlanta police officer Melina Lim and doctors Anita Mallya, Komal Paladugu and Jae Goines remember Hatchett’s race all too well. They’ll never forget it. The images are seared into their minds, of the crowd surrounding a body a mile into the race, of Hatchett motionless on the ground, of his chipped tooth and blood running from a gash over his left eye, and of administering CPR and a defibrillator until an ambulance came to take Hatchett away.

They never thought they’d see him again.

Instead, they’ll be with him again Tuesday. Hatchett, fully recovered from the cardiac arrest he suffered July 4, 2022, will be participating in the AJC Peachtree Road Race again this year. Lim, Mallya, Paladugu and Goines will be by his side.

“I’ve not experienced a medical miracle in my life,” Mallya said, “but I would say Willie is either that or the closest thing I will ever see.”

He was hooked after one Peachtree

Hatchett, 60, isn’t the type not to finish something he started. He grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and joined the U.S. Marines straight out of high school, serving for four years. Running became part of his routine in the Marines, and once out, he harbored Olympic dreams. While they never were realized, even years later, he kept himself in shape and prided himself on being able to run three miles at any time.

When he finished serving, Hatchett became a correctional officer, where he stayed for six years before getting into financial services. With relatively flexible hours, he looked for more to do. At the age of 46, he found it, graduating from the fire academy. He spent eight years fighting fires before turning to just the EMT side of the job. He’s still an EMT today.

In 1993, he ran his first AJC Peachtree Road Race. He was hooked. He made it his goal to run whenever he was in Atlanta for it. Often, family trips to Alabama prevented him from taking part, but Hatchett still managed to participate 13 or 14 times.

He’s not someone who takes it lightly, either. While he never ran other races, he’d train each year for the Peachtree, both to stay in shape and to be ready. Smartly knowing the distance from the MARTA station to the starting line and from the finish line back to the station, Hatchett recommended that runners prepare for more than just the 10K distance, and he followed his own advice.

After a slower than expected time in 2021, Hatchett entered the 2022 race with added motivation. He sprinted after the starting gun, with nothing but an open course and a couple of thousand runners between him and finishing the race, yet again.

A 10K for her free summer

When she lined up for the 2022 AJC Peachtree Road Race, Mallya had just completed her residency at Emory University Hospital. After finishing college, getting her master’s degree, her doctorate and finishing all her postdoctoral training, she was a week into a summer free from work responsibilities, one of her first free summers since high school.

An avid runner, Mallya had lived in Georgia for three years but had yet to sign up for the Peachtree. Those in Atlanta’s running community had told her that she had to, so she looked forward with anticipation to the Fourth of July.

It took Mallya 17 years of education to become a neurointensivist. Her job would focus on treating severe neurological diseases, including strokes, brain trauma and brain infections. She’d completed the training.

But that job didn’t start until the fall. For the moment, Mallya was just focused on completing the race and celebrating Independence Day.

She had seen it before

Paladugu and Goines decided to run the 2022 AJC Peachtree Road Race together. Neither particularly wanted to wake up in the predawn hours, but in pursuit of making the healthy choice, they signed up for it. Both regretted their decision when their alarms went off, wishing they could sleep in and not run a 10K.

The two worked together on a daily basis as emergency medical physicians at Piedmont Macon Medical Center. Goines serves as the program director for the hospital’s residency, while Paladugu was the associate program director there last July.

Paladugu was hoping just to make it through the race, her first Peachtree. Goines had a different goal. While this was her first time running it, she’d worked in the medical tent as part of the Emory/Grady emergency medicine residency in 2017. That year, she was part of a team that saved a man who went into cardiac arrest near the finish line.

Next to Paladugu at the starting line, Goines joked about her history.

“I was hoping this experience would be a little bit different this time,” she said, “and we’ll actually finish and run the race.”

Credit: Photo courtesy of Michael Charles/Better Outcomes

Credit: Photo courtesy of Michael Charles/Better Outcomes

Taking quick action

Mallya was a mile into the race when she noticed something was wrong. She noticed people crowding around someone, and while she assumed it was just a twisted ankle, she looked across the median and figured she had to at least check it out.

“My spidey sense (was) a little bit off,” Mallya remembered.

She crossed and found Hatchett, unconscious. People around him thought they had seen him seize. Mallya heard shallow breathing and checked his pulse. It was there, but thready.

Lim was there with Hatchett. Mallya asked Lim how long it would take for medical personnel to arrive, and when Lim estimated 10-12 minutes, Mallya knew she had to act.

She noted Hatchett’s pulse was getting weaker and asked bystanders to roll Hatchett onto his back, preparing for CPR. Soon, she could not feel his pulse at all. She ran into the InterContinental Hotel across the street to find a defibrillator.

At that point, Goines reached the crowd. She had seen it from across the road, and, like Mallya, assumed it was a common injury or heat stroke. She went over to see what she could do, saw someone administering CPR, and knew this was no ordinary occurrence.

Paladugu had gone slightly further, but noticed her running partner was gone. She turned back, found Goines and headed toward the crowd.

“I took over compressions shortly thereafter,” Paladugu said. “Jae was helping the code (slang for cardiac-arrest patient) at the time. There was quite a few people. Both of us are used to running codes as we work in the ER, and that’s part of what we do, but it was a very different environment.”

Mallya went inside, only to find that the hotel already had sent the defibrillator to Hatchett’s aid. She returned to the scene to find Goines and Paladugu, both of whom she knew, but had never worked with.

“We knew that all of us were running the race, but we were just going to meet up at the end of the race because we were in different heats,” Mallya said. “We did not expect to run into each other at a medical situation during this thing.”

There was mutual relief. Although they did not have the tools or equipment that they would usually have in an emergency-room setting, they knew and trusted each other.

They administered the AED. Hatchett had barely recovered a pulse by the time medics arrived. They continued chest compressions as they loaded him onto the stretcher. While the pulse left room for optimism, the doctors’ mood was grim.

“I looked at this man being rolled into the ambulance, and I was like, ‘He’s toast,’” Mallya said. “We didn’t have IV access. We had no drugs. We did have a defibrillator. We were doing high-quality chest compressions, but he didn’t have an established airway because mouth to mouth is no longer a part of CPR. I felt so disheartened.”

Goines, Paladugu and Mallya didn’t know what to do at that point. Then, figuring they had paid the entry fee and they were already on the course, they decided to finish the race.

A happy reunion

Three months later, Paladugu and Goines were sitting together at lunch after finishing a shift when Goines received a call from Michael Charles, the program director of Better Outcomes, a health and safety training and education organization. Hatchett had lived. Not only was he alive, but Hatchett had made a full recovery, avoiding any of the neurological injuries that Mallya had worried about.

Paladugu and Goines had a mixture of shock and awe. Both had feared the worst.

“I got chills,” Paladugu said. “(It’s) weird to think that there’s so much impact when it’s something that we do daily, but it felt more (impactful) because we were out in the world.”

Then Charles went further. Hatchett wanted to meet them. The doctors and Lim were invited to a ceremony in October where they would meet Hatchett and his family.

Hatchett had had a long journey to reach that point. He’d spent eight days in the hospital after his cardiac arrest, during which doctors put four stents in. To make matters worse, he tested positive for COVID-19 upon admission, meaning that neither his wife nor his extended family could visit him in the hospital. Either because of the cardiac arrest itself or the neurological trauma repression, he doesn’t remember race day or his first full day in the hospital. On his second day, July 6, he remembers a video conference call with family members stretching from Florida to California.

“I was still a little out of it, not sure where I was,” Hatchett said. “But I was told, after I woke up, I asked, ‘What’s going on? Did I finish the race?’”

On Oct. 13, he finally met the people who saved him.

“Oh my gosh, (it was) just overwhelming joy,” Mallya said. “I was in tears. I can’t even put it into words.”

“Remember, these people have seen me, but I haven’t seen them because I was out during this episode,” Hatchett said. “So they’ve seen me and when I saw them when they walked in, the look on their faces like, ‘This is Willie!’ They (looked) like they had seen a miracle. … I’m not going to compare myself to God, but they were looking at me as though I wasn’t just Willie. They were looking at me as though they were awed by what they saw.”

For Hatchett, it was an opportunity to share his gratitude. But for the doctors, meeting him meant much more. As ER doctors, Paladugu and Goines have gone through the worst of the pandemic. Although they often see patients in the worst moments of their lives, they rarely hear about patients’ outcomes.

“We don’t always have this nice follow up,” Paladugu said. “When he had told (Goines) that he had gotten therapy and then discharged with essentially a full neurologic recovery, not just significant cardiac recovery, that was mind blowing. It was another reaffirming moment.”

“The gratitude that (Hatchett’s family was) giving was amazing, but I don’t think they quite understand what this situation was doing for us, too,” Goines said.

Gladly telling his story

For most of Mallya’s career, she has been the one assigned to share bad news with patients’ families. Hearing Hatchett’s recovery and meeting his family gave her newfound optimism.

Hatchett has made it his mission to share his story as much as he can. He calls it his testimony. He started with the Better Outcomes ceremony, then posted a four-minute video to his Facebook account where he explained what had happened to him. Now, he explains what happened to everyone he meets, from Facebook friends to strangers to smoothie-shop owners. He believes his story has power.

“I’m sharing some stuff that’s gonna help somebody who’s going through some stuff,” Hatchett said. “And I’ve had people cry. (I’ve) shared this with them and people cry because they’re going through pain in their own lives and this has helped them. … I never look at it and say well, ‘Hey, God, why’d you do this to me,’ anything like that. I felt like He put me here, kept me here for a reason.”

After meeting, Hatchett and the people who saved his life have kept in contact. It was Lim who first suggested to Hatchett that he run again in 2023, saying if he did, she would run with him.

He wasn’t sure, but in January, he started to walk around his neighborhood. He felt better, so he reached out to Mallya, Paladugu and Goines to ask if they’d do it with him. They said they would, but all three were adamant that he receive a doctor’s clearance first.

A couple of weeks ago, Hatchett walked four miles for the first time. He texted the picture of the route to his sister, who asked if she had to come to Atlanta and tie him down. He didn’t respond. Three days later, another sister asked about it, and he told them he’d signed up for the road race. They called him crazy. When he walked five miles weeks later, they began to come around.

That is, with one exception: His wife is strongly opposed to the idea.

Hatchett feels he has to complete it to move on.

“I think, once I get this thing behind me, the sky’s the limit,” Hatchett said. “Not that I’m going to run a marathon or nothing like that, I’m saying other things I want to do.”

He won’t be running the race, but he will be walking it. He knows his time won’t be as good as it was in 1992, or even in 2021, the year he was ashamed of his result.

However, he does know this: When he crosses the finish line, he won’t be alone. He’ll have Lim, Goines, Paladugu and Mallya right there with him, the people who saved his life sharing in a special achievement – for all of them.

“It’s like the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat,” Hatchett said. “This is going to be my victory moment.”


Follow all of Tuesday’s color and competition at the AJC Peachtree Road Race.

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