Murfreesboro educator, nurse who saved his life are reunited

(The Tennessean)  A year ago Friday, Rick Collins was preparing for a funeral in Ft. Wayne, Ind., that he never made it to.

An assistant principal at Oakland High, Collins had finished a rigorous workout at the hotel he was staying at along with his parents. He decided to join them for breakfast in the lobby before his uncle’s funeral and fell to the ground a few moments later.

Also having breakfast was Donna Courtwright, a traveling rehab nurse from Cleveland, Ohio, who was in town to see a client.

“I heard this loud thud, then I heard (Collins’) mother scream his name,” Courtwright said. “He was purple like a plum.”

A nurse since 1970, Courtwright immediately began CPR. Despite having an artificial hip and knee and recent shoulder surgery, she continued the process for 35 minutes.

“When I saw his pupils react to the light, I knew he had a chance to make it,” she said.

After paramedics arrived, they used a defibrillator five or six times to jump-start Collins’ heart and intubated him to help him breathe.

“I really don’t remember much after the workout. I don’t even know if I’d started eating or was going back for seconds,” said Collins, 55.

Courtwright surprised Collins by flying in from Ohio Friday afternoon to honor their first encounter. In town for less than 24 hours, she spent the evening at Miller’s Grocery in Christiana with Collins’ closest family members.

“He met her one time in the hospital, but Ricky really didn’t remember her at all,” said Collins’ wife, Trudy, an assistant principal at Stewarts Creek Middle. “We got her schedule and saw she would be in Tennessee, so we met in Gatlinburg last summer and had dinner.”

Five bypasses

Collins, a former Riverdale football coach, underwent five bypass surgeries and was hospitalized at Lutheran Hospital of Indiana for 10 days before he was able to come home.

Since that first meeting , the Collinses and Courtwright have communicated weekly via emails and have become good friends. Courtwright said assisting Rick Collins was one of the few times she’d ever done CPR outside a hospital.

The experience was emotionally taxing for the nurse.

“I went in to work, but I called my boss and I was crying,” Courtwright said.

Trudy Collins said because of Courtwright’s efforts, her husband came through the process fairly easily.

“He didn’t have any brain damage from the fall and very little heart damage. He’d never had any heart problems before this,” Trudy Collins said. “She will forever be our angel. She was a total stranger, and she could have given up, but she didn’t.”

As a way of expressing their thanks, the Collinses purchased a commemorative brick in Courtwright’s honor to be installed during the upcoming renovation at Ohio Stadium, where Ohio State’s football team plays.

“It’s definitely rearranged some priorities. Usually, I was just working hard all the time. You can see what my life is all about now,” said Rick Collins, motioning to a table full of pictures of family members wearing stickers saying, “Smile if you love a heart attack survivor.”

“I have a guardian angel for life. It’s a special relationship. It’s really hard to describe it,” he said.