Shortly before 8 a.m. on Christmas morning in 2003, Christopher Conway’s twin brother, Justin, nudged him as the teenagers passed each other in the upstairs hall of their Melrose home. Suddenly, Chris slumped against the wall. Their older brother Scott ran down the street in his pajamas to summon help. John Shinkwin, an off-duty Cambridge firefighter, was putting breakfast on the table when he pounded on the door.
“Christopher stopped breathing,’’ Scott said.
When he got to the Conway home three doors down on Orient Place, he found Chris on the floor. Shinkwin performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the ambulance arrived. Four minutes later, paramedics got a viable rhythm.
Now eight years later, his health restored, Conway has made it his life’s work to help others. A paid call firefighter in Center Harbor, N.H., the soft-spoken 23-year-old last Friday took the national emergency medical technician exam with the hope that certification as a basic EMT will give him a career boost. He wants to make the transition from call firefighter to full-time first responder.
“As kids, we used to walk down to the fire station with my dad. I loved the big red trucks, the flashing lights, the sirens,’’ Conway said. “But what happened that Christmas, that’s what put me on the right track to what I’m doing today.’’
“My neighbor, John, he helped save my life,’’ said Conway. “I wanted to give back and help someone else.’’
At Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, Conway was later diagnosed with a rare condition called commotio cordis, a disruption of the heart’s electrical system that causes cardiac arrest and, in many cases, sudden death. Between 1996 and 2007, the United States Commotio Cordis Registry in Minneapolis recorded 188 cases nationwide. It most commonly occurs when young male athletes are struck in the chest by a ball. Fewer than 1 in 5 victims survive, according to the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.
Soon after Conway’s heartbeat was stabilized, he was transferred to Children’s Hospital Boston. Doctors there placed a defibrillator in his chest to prevent another arrhythmia. But in the eight years that have passed since the operation, the defibrillator has not once had to emit electrical pulses to control Conway’s heartbeat.
He would like to one day have the defibrillator removed because the device threatens his dream of becoming a career firefighter. Under guidelines set by the National Fire Protection Association, professional firefighters can’t have any kind of mechanical implant.
“Firefighting, it’s what he lives for,’’ said Walter Conway, Christopher’s father. “It’s who he is, it’s who he wants to be. He goes to school for it every week. So although I would have concerns about him getting the defibrillator removed, I would support him. You can’t stand in the way of your kids’ dreams.’’
Conway last year was promoted to lieutenant for Center Harbor Fire Rescue, after he was named firefighter of the year for 2010. On his time off from his full-time job as a maintenance man for a camp on Lake Winnipesaukee, Conway can be found at the Center Harbor firehouse, answering the telephones and studying between calls for assistance. The station receives about 400 calls each year; Conway, who joined the department in 2008, responds to more than half of them, according to Fire Chief John Schlemmer. “There is so much bad news lately, but there is good news also, thanks to the people that helped my son that day,’’ said Maryellen Conway, Christopher’s mother.
On a recent afternoon, Conway was at the station in Center Harbor when a young boy from Seabrook stopped by with his mother. Conway noticed the sparkle in the child’s eyes and recognized a kindred spirit. He took the youngster on a tour of the firehouse, showing him the big red trucks, the flashing lights, the sirens.
Schlemmer looked on with a grin.
“Mentoring is the key to keeping a small-town fire service like this one going,’’ said Schlemmer, who oversees a roster of 27 call firefighters. “Our entire fire department budget is $160,000. If we had to pay each of our firefighters $50,000 or $60,000, the town would go broke.
“If we don’t have guys like Chris, we don’t have a fire service.’’