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On display in the dairy aisle, the kiss of life and lifelong friends

Last April, Marsha Lawless was clinically dead on the floor of the dairy aisle of the Market Basket in Reading, but was brought back to life by a group of store workers, another shopper and Reading firefighters. She received the kiss of life, and the gift of lifelong friends who saved her life.

Marsha Lawless with Diana Merlos, the assistant store manager, and Sten Anderson, who was shopping at the Market Basket in Reading last year when Lawless went into cardiac arrest. They helped save her life.
Marsha Lawless with Diana Merlos, the assistant store manager, and Sten Anderson, who was shopping at the Market Basket in Reading last year when Lawless went into cardiac arrest. They helped save her life.Lawless family

Last April, Marsha Lawless died on the floor of the dairy aisle of the Market Basket in Reading.

She was clinically dead for almost 10 minutes. But she is alive today because some strangers sprang into action and refused to let her die.

Lawless, a teacher who specializes in teaching dyslexic children how to read, had just finished a class and popped into the Market Basket to do some shopping before heading home to Lynnfield. Her heart suddenly stopped and she dropped to the floor.

Diana Merlos, the store’s 23-year-old assistant manager, rushed to her side. Merlos had taken a CPR class years before as a student at Somerville High School. She dug into her memory bank and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

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Sten Anderson, a retired medical records professional who had been shopping in the same aisle, rushed over, too. He began chest compressions. Two other Market Basket employees, a brother and sister who work in the dairy aisle, knelt down beside her. The young woman held Marsha’s hand while her brother cradled Marsha’s head.

Merlos and Anderson worked on Marsha for 10 minutes, until Reading firefighters arrived with a defibrillator and shocked Marsha’s heart back into rhythm. She spent three days in the Lahey Clinic before being released to her husband, Joe, and their kids. She recovered fully, no lasting problems.

It took Marsha Lawless more than a month to summon the nerve to walk back into the supermarket where she collapsed.

“I had to meet Diana,” she said. “I had to hug her.”

When the meeting finally happened, the two women embraced and cried while customers looked on, applauding.

Marsha also went by the firehouse to thank Captain Peter Marchetti and the other firefighters who saved her — Joe LaPolla, Nick DeRoche, Matt Berger, MacKendry Vernet, Ryan Buckley, and Bruce Ayer.

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And she tracked down Sten Anderson, who’s become like a brother. He regularly attends family gatherings. When Marsha turned 60 last August, Sten was asked to give the toast at her birthday party.

In a video of the event, he looked at Marsha and said: “I’m happy that I happened to come along at that time and that place. And judging by all the people that you’ve touched and love, and who love you, it makes me feel better than ever.”

Last December, right before Christmas, Marsha went into the store and, by coincidence, Diana was working and Sten was shopping. It was the first time the three of them were together since that crazy day.

“Best Christmas present, ever,” Marsha said, recalling the chance meeting.

A few months ago, Marsha was standing in the dairy aisle again, looking for yogurt, when she was suddenly overcome by emotion. She began crying. A young Market Basket employee came over to comfort her, asking what was wrong. As Lawless told the story, the young woman’s eyes widened.

“Oh, it’s you,” Angela Castillo told her. “I was with you that day. I held your hand.”

Angela called her brother Angelo over and they all embraced. They told Marsha they had gone home to Lawrence that night and, with their mother, prayed for the lady in the dairy aisle. Their prayers were answered.

Up until recently, when COVID-19 changed everything, Marsha Lawless went by the Market Basket every week and tracked down her lifesavers, to say hello and give them a hug.

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Now, she worries about them, as they keep working through a pandemic.

“I’m not surprised they keep working, putting themselves at risk to keep people fed and healthy,” she said. “Some people are just learning to appreciate them. I learned to appreciate them the hard way. I owe my life to them. It was a gift to always see them.”

She worries for the firefighters who saved her, too, as they and other first responders risk exposure to the virus every day.

More than anything, Marsha Lawless is counting the days until the virus ebbs and all this social distancing is over.

There’s a lot of people she wants to hug again.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.