Father, Daughter Who Work for GEMS Share Story of Cardiac Arrest Call: “The Stars Aligned”

It was never supposed to be a family affair. Kristina Hughes, 33, who has worked for Greenwich Emergency Medical Service “GEMS” two years – one year part time and one year full time – had anticipated a career in business.

“I never wanted to do anything in EMS because my dad has been a paramedic my entire life,” Kristina said. “My dad started with GEMS two days before I was born.”

“It wasn’t until I worked as a manager that I realized I hated it,” she recalled. “Then I worked as a receptionist at an animal hospital and wondered what it would be like as a veterinary technician. I did that for 7 years – that got my door in the medical side.”

From there, Kristina, who had joined the fire department in her home town of Goldens Bridge, NY, at 16, decided to take an EMT course for her work at the fire house.

“As soon as I got on the ambulance for the first time, I realized I loved it. It felt right,” she recalled.

Walter Hughes, who was an EMT before he became a paramedic, said he too originally anticipated a business career. In fact, he studied accounting at Pace University.

“I’ve been at GEMS 33 years,” he said. “They call us senior people on the tour the dinosaurs.”

“My father was the local fire chief and my mother was a dispatcher, so it all fell naturally to me,” Walter said. “I joined the fire dept at 16. I’m still a member of the fire department and for a few years I served as chief.”

Recalling the night she and her father responded to the same call, Kristina said, “Technically we wouldn’t have been on the call together.”

Kristina works nights and had come to work a bit early, and Walter, who works days, was at the end of his shift when the call came in for a cardiac arrest.

“Our policy for cardiac arrests is we send two ambulances, with two teams, to make sure there are enough resources and, when doing CPR, we are able to switch people out – it’s a pit crew mentality,” she said.

“We were pulling up and hear ‘CPR in progress’ and think, ‘Oh no,’” she recalled. 

“When we arrived, the police officer was doing compressions, and we were pulling out the pads,” Kristina said, adding GEMS staff and Greenwich Police work seamlessly together. “It just flows. It’s intuitive – there’s not a lot of talking. Everyone knows what to do.”

The patient was beside a swimming pool and was still wet.

“While the police officer was speaking with the gentleman, he had gone into cardiac arrest,” Kristina explained. “We found he was in a shockable rhythm, and after we made sure he was dry, we applied the pads. My dad and his partner came around the corner and asked what we needed.”

She said Walter offered a LUCAS device, which is a mechanical chest compression device. “At GEMS we’re lucky to have that as a tool. I was planning to switch the officer over for the LUCAS.”

“My dad and his partner started to pull things over, unzipping things and moving things closer so we could get IV access,” she said. “When you’re doing CPR, the first thing you’re thinking of are compressions. Then you want to think about shocking the patient, and then vascular access to do medication.”

“Luckily, with this gentleman, he came right out of it. It was really great to have that amazing outcome,” Kristina said. “Then he was talking to me in the ambulance and holding my hand, saying he didn’t remember what happened. I said, ‘Honey, you might never remember and that’s fine.’ He said, ‘You’re absolutely right and I don’t care if I don’t remember.’ It made my day. That guy gets to kiss his wife goodnight. It doesn’t always end that way.”

Walter and Kristina Hughes.

Walter – whose tour runs Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – said no two days are ever the same.

“There are strokes, drug overdoses and heart attacks. It runs the gamut,” he said, adding that calls come through the 911 system at Greenwich’s public safety complex.

And because Greenwich has multiple nursing homes and an older population, many calls are for falls. “A common call is someone fell and maybe broke a hip,” he said.

Walter said the pandemic impacted GEMS tremendously in March and April, when roughly 40% of calls were for Covid-19 patients.

“For a time it seemed like every other patient had Covid. It was a very stressful time,” he said, adding that he was diagnosed with Covid himself.

“It was two weeks of hell,” Walter recalled of his illness. “There were 8 or 10 days where I didn’t want to get out of bed.”

He received his diagnosis on April 28 and began to feel better around Kristina’s birthday on May 11. Four days later he was back at the job he loves.

“I very rarely call in sick,” he said. “I missed the work.”

Since Covid-19 became the new normal, Walter said GEMS had added protocols, particularly for the use of PPE. Typically they wear surgical masks and gloves, but now there are gowns if a patient has a fever, for example, and everyone received a respirator mask.

Walter said not only does his work offer variety, but that it is always uplifting to know a life has been saved, especially at the end of a shift.

Kristina said she had two other cardiac arrest calls after the one she shared with her father. Neither had a positive outcome.

“More often than not, the results are not so great,” Walter said of sudden cardiac arrests. “A lot of things have to fall right into place. The timing has to be right. I’m always happy when we arrive and someone is already doing CPR. Timing is of the essence. This gentleman was defibrillated  quickly and into a survivable rhythm. All the stars aligned for him, thankfully.”

Kristina said she plans to continue her father’s footsteps. She said in addition to working full time at GEMS, she attends a paramedic academy in New Britain and hopes to work as a paramedic in an urban setting.

“It’d like to get experience in an inner-city, and then return to GEMS,” she said.

Kristina and Walter both refer to GEMS as a family. As such, they’re a family within a family.

“She’s a better EMT than me,” Walter said of Kristina. “I couldn’t be more proud.”