WINTHROP — Matthew O’Connell and Dr. Michael Murphy live less than a half-mile from each other in Winthrop, yet their first meeting occurred under special circumstances.
On the morning of May 22, both men set out from their respective homes. O’Connell, 54, was on his way to pay some bills. Murphy, 41, an emergency room physician at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, was driving his father to an ophthalmology appointment .
O’Connell had awakened feeling fine, walking his dog in a nearby park as usual, then returning home. His last memory of that day was pulling out of the driveway for his errands.
He had traveled about 2 miles when Murphy — a few cars behind — saw O’Connell’s vehicle veer off Boardman Street in East Boston and come to a slow stop against the curb, without any brake lights coming on. When he drove past and didn’t see the driver raise his head from the steering wheel or put the car in reverse, he sensed something was wrong and pulled over.
“I said, ‘Dad, I just have to check this out,’ ” Murphy recalled. “I ran to the passenger’s side and I could tell that he was barely breathing. But when I came around to the driver’s side, I couldn’t feel a pulse.”
After shouting for his father to call 911, Murphy struggled to lift O’Connell — who estimates he weighed 270 pounds at the time — from the Ford Escort until “all of a sudden, there were five or six hands helping me lay him on the ground.” Murphy began CPR immediately.
Boston Fire Department Lieutenant Frederick Lorenz was one of four members of Ladder 21 in Orient Heights who were dispatched to the medical call at 8:01 a.m. Lorenz and firefighters Robert Gainey, Loring Jacks, and Peter Buchanan arrived two minutes later and took over the resuscitation efforts from Murphy. They used a defibrillator to shock O’Connell’s heart once and continued CPR until Boston EMS arrived at 8:07 a.m., and continued treatment during transport to Massachusetts General Hospital.
“The fact that the doctor recognized he was in cardiac arrest and performed CPR prolonged the window of opportunity for us to defibrillate,” said Lorenz, noting that usually an electric shock or medicine, in addition to quality cardiopulmonary resuscitation, is required to reset the heartbeat.
“CPR is critical, even if it’s hands only. Without CPR feeding blood to the brain and other vital organs, the outcome is usually not desirable,” he said.
Murphy was told it wasn’t necessary for him to accompany O’Connell in the ambulance, so he returned to his car and waiting father, Donal Murphy, 69.
O’Connell awoke the next day following emergency surgery to see his brother, sister, ex-wife, and 24-year-old daughter standing over his hospital bed. He had undergone emergency surgery at Mass. General following heart attacks in 2006 and 2009. In 2012, he went to the emergency department feeling lightheaded, and a stent was implanted.
“Bad genes run in my family,” said O’Connell, who said one brother died of a heart attack and another lost his fight with cancer. O’Connell also has diabetes.
“I was very lucky. Someone was watching over me,” he said, thankful that he didn’t injure anyone with his car. “I’ve got a few people upstairs, but Michael was my guardian angel that day.”
O’Connell remains determined to make the most of his new chance at life, and to make sure those responsible know how much he appreciates it. He was discharged on May 27 and drove to the Ladder 21 fire station on the one-week anniversary of the incident, hoping the same firefighters would be on duty.
Lorenz, who worked for Boston EMS for four years before joining the Fire Department in 2002, said it’s rare for firefighters to learn how someone fares after a medical emergency. So rare, he said, that O’Connell’s visit marked the first time he had met an individual on whom he had performed CPR.
“When he showed up to thank us, I was surprised he was already up walking,” Lorenz said. “He didn’t remember much, so we explained what happened and he was more than grateful. I’m just really happy it turned out as well as it did.”
Before he left, O’Connell asked for help in determining the identity of the motorist who had helped save his life. He followed up on initial calls made by Lorenz until he reached Murphy.
“I was all thank yous, and he was very happy I reached out to him,” said O’Connell, who has already lost 15 pounds by changing his diet and taking his dog, Frankie (“105 pounds of pure love”), on near daily long walks on Revere Beach and Belle Isle Marsh Reservation. “Everything is a bonus from here on out.”
The men were reunited on June 16 while sharing their story on a WGBH television show, “Greater Boston.” While O’Connell had just celebrated his “best ever” Father’s Day, Murphy said he has also benefited from the experience: The only other time he assisted with a medical emergency outside of work was when he managed a fellow passenger’s heart attack with onboard medication until their airplane made an emergency landing.
“This is as special for me as it is for him,” said Murphy, recalling how his soft-spoken father had said he was proud of him after observing the lifesaving work he performs routinely. In addition, Murphy said, he was touched by the quick action of so many bystanders that morning, as well as that not one car honked while “backed up in all directions” in rush-hour traffic.
“I see a lot of horrible things in my job, and because I work random shifts at all hours, I miss a lot of time with my wife and daughter,” he said. “To have someone doing so well and exuding such graciousness and thankfulness will keep me going for another 20 years.”