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More than just a meal

Health: While bringing a lunch, home-delivery volunteer Tracy Gauny rescues a senior in distess

Posted: March 28, 2010 9:16 p.m.
Updated: March 29, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Tracy Gauny, volunteer for the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center Home Delivered Meals program, loads up one of the center's trucks for her route. Gauny recently helped save a Newhall client's life after he collapsed and stopped breathing during her delivery.

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Throughout the course of providing 300-400 home-delivered meals to our valley’s homebound elders every Monday through Friday, Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center volunteer drivers are often greeted with smiles and fond hellos. Understandably, to many of the older men and women receiving the hot, nutritious lunches, those friendly faces in their doorways are oftentimes the most anticipated highlight of the day.

On Friday, March 19, as Home Delivered Meals volunteer Tracy Gauny traversed through her generally peaceful Newhall delivery route, she encountered something quite unexpected on the other side of a recipient’s door: a life-and-death situation.

Robert Culhane, 84, slowly opened the door, clutched his chest and collapsed forward, directly onto Gauny. His shirt was open and she saw a long scar down the man’s mid-torso, suggesting to Gauny that he had recently undergone heart surgery.

A petite woman, Tracy quickly tried to lower Culhane to the ground, and then observed an even more terrifying series of events unfold as he lay on the floor.

“I asked him over and over, ‘Mr. Culhane, are you OK?’ but he didn’t reply. Then his eyes rolled back, he was unresponsive, unconscious and not breathing whatsoever,” said Gauny, an HDM volunteer for more than four years.

Gauny — whose emergency medical technician daughter, Carly, often delivers the meals with her but wasn’t present that day — instantly dashed out the apartment door to see if someone was in the hallway. No luck.

Immediately she dialed 911 and reported the situation to the dispatcher. With paramedics now on their way, Gauny felt she had to do something during the wait. Time was ticking by, and Culhane was not breathing.

“It had already been at least one, maybe two minutes or so since he had taken a breath, so I did some gentle chest compressions, trying not to hurt the surgical incision site, but knowing I needed to get the blood circulating,” she said.

Although not formally trained as an emergency responder, Gauny’s quick thinking apparently played a key role in reviving Culhane.

After performing about 30 seconds of compressions, the Good Samaritan was able to stop: Culhane began to breathe on his own.

By the time paramedics arrived, he opened his eyes and soon after, started conversing.

Several days after that incident, Culhane remains in the hospital undergoing further tests, but is reported to be improving.

Through the years, many home-delivered meals recipients have been in distress when their driver arrived at their door, and many times the resultant 911 calls have saved lives. But Tracy went above and beyond the call of duty on this occasion, said Zee Abdulkadir, home-delivered meals coordinator.

“This is a very special case where the driver actually started CPR before the paramedics arrived,” Abdulkadir said. “Tracy’s presence and rapid assistance underscores the value of our home-delivered meals program. Not only is the food nutritious and the visits cherished, but these meal-related ‘drop-ins’ allow HDM drivers the opportunity of personally checking on seniors and determining if they are doing well, or in need of urgent medical attention. We are the eyes and ears for many of our community’s seniors.”

Gauny downplayed the significance of her assistance that day.

“I did what anyone would do, probably even Donald Duck,” she said through a humble smile. “I am not special. It was serendipity that I was there. I’m just elated that he is alive and getting better. Mr. Culhane could be anyone’s father or grandpa or husband ... a nice elderly man who needed some help, and I happened to be there.”  

Gauny said this drives home the message that “our community no longer has a quality transitional care unit.”

“We desperately need a facility where people, especially seniors, can go to recover after heart surgery, or hip replacements or strokes — conditions that take a toll on the elderly and necessitate their getting added care and observation until they can safely return home and care for themselves,” Gauny said. “I hope to see that kind of facility created soon. The seniors deserve it, but also, anyone at any age could find themselves into that situation where they need extra time to heal. You just never know in life.”     

Culhane’s son, Garrett Culhane, lauded Gauny’s actions.

“Tracy told me she just ‘brings the meals.’ Well, in my dad’s case she delivered a lot more than just a meal,” said Garrett Culhane, a writer and Long Beach resident. “She found herself in the uncanny position of literally being a first responder. I doubt that is on her ‘volunteer’ job title.”

Home-delivered meals are far more substantive than just meals being delivered daily, Garrett Culhane declared.

“It is the presence of someone connecting the elderly with the community. To my good fortune, the unintended consequence of one delivery was the opportunity for Tracy to check in on the well-being of my father,” he stated.

Garrett Culhane noted that his father had undergone open heart surgery — a triple bypass and heart valve replacement — on Feb. 6. After a period of convalescing, he was discharged, believing he was well enough to care for himself.

After talking his dad home, Garrett returned to Long Beach. That was Thursday night, March 18.

The following morning when he called to check on his father, paramedics answered the phone, certainly not a turn of events the Culhanes had anticipated.

Garrett Culhane reported that his father is stable and “fortunately getting the care he needs at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital.”

He also felt their family was lucky.

“My dad has a lot more than a meal to thank Tracy for,” he said. “It’s unsettling to call your father and have a paramedic answer the phone, but the flip side is a sense of relief that someone was there at the critical moment to call 911, as Tracy was able to do.”

Brad Berens, chief executive of the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center and the SCV Committee on Aging, hailed Gauny’s quick thinking and decisive response.

“Tracy is an amazing asset to the Senior Center and particularly as a Home Delivered Meals volunteer,” he said. “She is always very upbeat and cheerful – qualities that help brighten the day for every senior she encounters. And now with this emergency rescue, she is truly a home-delivered angel.”

Berens also expressed a wish to see more people in the community embrace the Home Delivered Meals program.

“Even in better financial years, this program has operated on a shoestring budget,” said Berens, now at the Senior Center helm for 19 years. “Today it’s far more difficult to keep it going, especially given the many budget cuts, decreased donations, and increased numbers of seniors in need of assistance. Our vow, however, is to never let a senior in our valley go hungry. And that is a promise we plan to keep.”

For further information about the Senior Center’s Home-Delivered Meals program, call (661) 255-1588.

Author’s note: In efforts to save lives by ensuring that everyone facing a life-threatening emergency receives safe and appropriate assessment and intervention skills (particularly from Good Samaritans) the American Red Cross offers classes in first aid, how to perform CPR, and how to use an automated external defibrillator. For further information please visit www.red.org.

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