He’s unlikely to ever forget the day he died and was brought back to life.
Gary McIlwain was sitting on the couch and woke up three days later in the hospital. At his bedside, his family recounted the events of those 72 hours.
Marbletown firefighter Kyle VerStraete wasn’t far away this past December when the call came in requesting assistance for a respiratory arrest. When he arrived, a life-long family friend, McIlwain, was lying prone on the floor in the family room, his wife, Marlene, was performing CPR. Among the first on scene, Kyle stepped in to assess Gary’s condition — there was no pulse and he wasn’t breathing. Kyle began chest compressions. When he noticed movement in Gary’s throat, he reassessed, there was a pulse, but Gary was still in respiratory arrest.
“It’s a little bit different when you know them, but it’s your job,” Kyle said. “I always tell the guys around the fire house, you don’t wake up in the morning saying, ‘I’m going to save someone’s life today.’”
Kyle continued rescue breathing until EMS personnel loaded Gary into the ambulance. With his dad, Marbletown Fire Chief and Newark Police Inv. Gary VerStraete, Kyle followed the ambulance to the hospital where they eventually learned their friend would be all right. But for Kyle, that realization has been a long time coming through a slow progression of events — first the news that Gary was leaving the hospital, then seeing photos on Facebook of McIlwain with his new granddaughter, MacKenzie, and finally the Marbletown Fire Department annual banquet on April 20, where he was honored.
“When I saw him at the banquet, that put my mind at ease,” Kyle said. “Then I knew he was going to be OK.”
At that banquet, Kyle was named the department’s Firefighter of the Year for his efforts to help save McIlwain’s life. Kyle had no words to express how honored he felt to receive the award. It was humbling for the 20-year-old.
“To live life knowing you saved someone’s life and knowing MacKenzie has a grandfather ... it’s a wonderful feeling,” Kyle said.
McIlwain, who is an Arcadia Town Councilman, was diagnosed about a year ago with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a disease that attacks the muscular system.
“I’m doing pretty good,” McIlwain said, adding that he has good days and bad days. “When I get out of bed and feel good, that’s a good day to me.”
That December day was a new start for McIlwain. His disease had been taking him down fast after his diagnosis, he said. He had lost his taste for food, and as a result, lost about 50 pounds in three months. He’d been a police officer in Newark, partnered with Gary VerStraete, for 20 years before retiring and going to work at the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office.
Page 2 of 2 - “I’ve known (Kyle) since he was just a little tot,” McIlwain said.
After his diagnosis, he was unable to continue working, and his co-workers all pitched in to send him on his dream vacation to Las Vegas. Looking back, McIlwain admits he should’ve put the trip off, but he enjoyed himself immensely and over-did it. When he got back, he had to go on oxygen.
He and his wife had just returned from getting another oxygen tank. He was sitting on the couch and his wife was doing dishes when he doubled over and fell forward.
“I was pretty much gone,” McIlwain said. “I’m thankful for being here.”
His family told him the house was filled to capacity with those answering the call to help. Since then McIlwain has fought hard to recover, needing help to dress and eat and accepting that he can’t do what he used to be able to do. He has a feeding tube now since the disease has affected his ability to swallow. He lives in limbo, he said — he could have months or he could have years — but no matter what, he lives each day to the fullest, thanks to Kyle and other volunteers like him.
“He told me, ‘I couldn’t let you down,’” McIlwain said of Kyle. “The friendship, knowing that he thought that much of me ... It meant so much. It meant so much that I can see my granddaughter. I wanted to be around a while for that.”
His job or not, Kyle was born to help others, coming from a long line of volunteer firefighters in a fire department his great-grandfather, Ed, helped establish. A fourth-generation firefighter, Kyle expects his 4-month-old daughter will follow in his family’s footsteps.
“God bless people like Kyle and the volunteers willing to come out and help people,” McIlwain said. “I’m thankful for my family, for Marbletown Fire Department, for the volunteers, for everyone who showed up. I believe you should live every day like it might be your last, because you never know.”
Luckily, that fateful day in December was not his last, and he has Kyle VerStraete to thank.