Positively Jax: Local father saved by strangers at airport

Don Wolfson hopes his story will encourage others to stop and help

Don Wolfson suffered a sudden cardiac arrest when two strangers saved his life using an AED.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Don Wolfson, a lifelong Jacksonville resident, was traveling to Boise, Idaho, on July 29, 2015, to meet a work customer when his life changed forever. He had just walked off the plane and was heading toward baggage claim when he started to feel lightheaded. He thought it was just a change in air pressure and continued.

“For some reason, I started to fall,” he explained. Within a few seconds, Wolfson collapsed. “The doctors told me at that time, I was clinically dead. My heart had stopped.”

Wolfson, who said he has no family history of heart disease, had suffered sudden cardiac arrest.

Doreen Lundberg was walking out of the restroom at that moment and saw him on the floor.

“I ran over to him, everyone was walking past him. I could see he was in distress,” she described. “I wasn’t hearing a breath. I knew we had to start CPR.”

Doreen Lundberg helped save the life of Don Wolfson. (WJXT)

Lundberg said she made sure someone called 911 and started compressions. Cory Woods was sitting further down the terminal but heard Lundberg yelling for help.

“I jumped up to see what I could do,” described Woods. “Conveniently enough between me and the situation, there was an AED that was mounted on the wall.”

Woods said he was “shocked” when he placed the Automatic External Defibrillator pads on Wolfson’s chest and the AED delivered a shock.

“It kind of all became real,” he said. “within about 2 minutes of me being there and the AED doing what it needed to do, there were signs of life.”

Paramedics arrived a short time later and rushed Wolfson to the hospital. He underwent surgery to have a defibrillator implanted near his heart to prevent it from stopping again. It was not until he recovered that he was able to piece together what happened to him. He tracked down Lundberg and Woods, anxious to thank them for saving his life.

After talking with them, he is struck by the strange coincidences that occurred that day. First, he learned Lundberg, who is a flight attendant, should not have been at the airport at that moment when he collapsed. She was off-duty at the time but was flying to see her mother in California.

“She had already missed her first flight and it was very unusual that she was bumped off her second flight,” explained Wolfson.

“It was a fluke that I was there at that time,” admits Lundberg.

Another coincidence, she was trained in CPR. Her job requires CPR certification every year, which is why she knew what to do when she saw Wolfson on the ground.

Then there’s Woods. On that same day, Woods was returning to Virginia with a group of students at the school where he works. They had been fly-fishing. When he arrived with them at the Boise airport, the flight was overbooked. He stayed behind to take a later flight so the students could travel together.

Cory Woods placed an Automatic External Defibrillator on Don Wolfson's chest to help save his life in the airport. (WJXT)

“He wasn’t supposed to be there either,” explained Wolfson, incredulously.

He was stunned to also learn what Woods does for a living.

“I am actually a Red Cross instructor,” explained Woods. “Part of my job at the school where I work is to teach our students, coaches, faculty and staff CPR and first aid skills.”

Wolfson said he believes divine intervention put Lundberg and Woods in the airport on that day, at that time, to save him.

“I don’t tell other people what to believe or who to believe in. I believe the angels were sent to save me. It was not my time to die,” said Wolfson.

He points to other coincidences that occurred that day and the days that followed. For example, he said on the plane before he collapsed, he had a long conversation with two women sitting next to him.

“I usually mind my own business. I will either read, I will sleep or I will do some work,” he explained.

But that day, he talked to Rita Gregory and her daughter, Julieanne. Julieanne had recently married. Wolfson’s daughter was getting married in two months so they had a lot in common.

It just so happened that when Wolfson collapsed, both women were still at the gate and were able to provide the airline with his name and the city where he lives so the airline could contact his family.

Charlene Oliver was the supervisor working that day and was able to contact Wolfson’s wife, Karen. She arranged for Karen and one of their daughters to fly out for free so they could join Wolfson at the hospital. Wolfson considers Oliver to be one of his angels, too.

Another strange coincidence for Wolfson occurred at the hospital. When presented with the idea of surgery to implant a defibrillator in his chest, Wolfson wanted to travel back to Jacksonville so his cardiologist could perform the surgery. As he and his Jacksonville doctor discussed the procedure on the phone, Wolfson told him the name of the cardiologist in Boise who was treating him.

Don Wolfson shared this photo of himself in the hospital after his sudden cardiac arrest. (Photo provided)

“I said her name is Dr. Margot Vloka. His cardiologist replied, ‘Dr. Margot Volka?’”

As it turns out he knew her.

“I studied with her at Columbia. She has a duel fellowship. She is brilliant,” said Wolfson’s cardiologist, who told him you let her do the surgery. Wolfson said Vloka had just moved to Boise four months earlier.

Two months after Wolfson suffered sudden cardiac arrest, he walked his daughter, Kimberly, down the aisle.

“That dance with the bride was special and very emotional,” described Wolfson, choking back tears.

His daughter now has a 2-year-old son, who spends his days with his grandparents.

“He is just so special to all of us. He has brought us such joy,” described Wolfson as he shared all the special moments he has had since he was saved.

When asked what he thinks would have happened to him if Lundberg and Woods had not been at the airport that day in Boise, Wolfson is quick to answer.

“Absolutely, I would not be here. There is a 2-minute window to survive,” he explained.

If CPR is not performed within that time frame when someone suffers a heart attack or stroke, that person’s chances of surviving drop dramatically.

“I am in the 1% category that had no damage, no heart damage, no brain damage,” Wolfson explained. “That 2-minute window is critical and if those people just called 911 (and not performed CPR), I would have been taken away and I would have just been another statistic.”

Wolfson still stays in touch with his “angels.” Lundberg said she is anxious to meet Wolfson again in person.

“Don and his family are like family to me,” she explained. “Once you do CPR on someone, there’s a tie to them.”

Woods said he tells his CPR students about what happened so they understand the importance of getting certified and never hesitating to help.

“Everyone wants to make a difference and give help when others need it,” said Woods when asked why he ran to assist Lundberg.

Wolfson has spoken on behalf of the American Heart Association and now tells his story to whoever will listen.

“If my story helps save just one person’s life, it’s worth it, he said.

About the Author:

Jennifer, who anchors The Morning Shows and is part of the I-TEAM, loves working in her hometown of Jacksonville.