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Saving a Lifesaver: How Richard Morse Survived Near-Fatal Oktoberfest Cardiac

Pasadena firefighter, performing immediate CPR, kept La Mesan alive just feet from beer garden.

Richard Morse doesn’t boast, but he’s saved the lives of three people over the years—a hiker who fell off a cliff in Apple Valley, a motorist who flipped her car on Interstate 8 and a girl who was “definitely drowning” in ocean surf.

So it was only fair that around 5:30 p.m. Oct. 2, 2010—while nearing the Allison Avenue beer garden at Oktoberfest—he was saved himself.

Walking with his wife, Marilyn, the La Mesan collapsed with a heart attack only 10 feet from the beer garden entrance. His lips turned purple. He wasn’t breathing.

He was minutes from death.

“I don’t even remember hitting the sidewalk,” Morse said last week, sitting with Marilyn in the Grossmont High School library where she works.  “I fell down and rolled into the street.”

Marilyn recalls screaming, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Somebody call 911!” 

Several people, including a security guard who called for emergency help, immediately came to Richard’s aid.

One was an off-duty firefighter who noticed the commotion.

“This guy came out of the blue and said, ‘You need to get out from under him [since Richard’s head was in her lap],” she said. “I think it was the firefighter from Pasadena.”

He started cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and an off-duty nurse from a Scripps hospital monitored Morse’s vital signs.

“Because he started CPR immediately, that’s why he didn’t have any brain damage or scarring,” she said.

La Mesa firefighters Steve Pullen and Todd Feneis, having heard the report on their police radios even before getting the word on their Heartland Fire & Rescue gear, quickly arrived by bike and pulled out a portable defibrillator to shock Richard’s heart back to life.

“They had to paddle me three times,” said Richard, 60. “Your heart just stops. Electrically, it’s not working. The upper part of the heart is not talking to the lower part.”

Morse was rushed by ambulance to Sharp Grossmont Hospital, fading in and out of consciousness before reaching the emergency room.

“I was still kind of angry,” he said. “The paddle hurt. I didn’t know what was going on. I was a little belligerent ... kind of mad. I thought I’d been hit or something.”

A temporary pacemaker was attached outside Richard’s chest—with a wire to his heart—in case he required another shock. It wasn’t needed.

His attack was around 5:30 Saturday night. Sunday morning he had a permanent pacemaker implanted by surgeons at Grossmont’s new cardiac center. And that Monday morning—after declining an offer to move to Kaiser Permanente’s San Diego Medical Center, his insurer’s hospital—he was allowed to go home.

“The doctors actually said that when they did his surgery that they hoped that when they were his age that their veins and arteries looked as good as his,” said Marilyn, who recently turned 50 and was born at Grossmont Hospital.

Said Richard of a recent chat with his doctor: “He said I’m a success story. ‘You’re fine. You’re lucky.’ I’ve heard that from four doctors: ‘You’re fortunate.’ Yeah, I am very lucky.”

Morse said he has no scarring or plaque buildup.

“I don’t have any congested or restricted arteries and veins,” he said. “All the running I used to do must have paid off.”

He said his arrhythmia happens to 300,000 to 350,000 people a year in the United States.  “So it’s just like the basketball player [Len Bias] falling dead,” he said.

His health was aided by his luck, however.

“Everybody was there—boom!” Richard said of the quick response. “It couldn’t have happened at a better place. What if I had been mowing the lawn in the back yard? I’d be out there, and I’d be over with.”

Marilyn said a head nurse at Grossmont hospital—a recent client of her husband, who does general contracting and home remodeling—made sure Richard had the best care, even a private room where she could sleep in a recliner that converted into a bed.

“He had a view, a corner room,” she said. “It was new. Some angels were really looking after him—after all of us, actually.”

Also at his side were his two brothers and his daughters Nicole, now 24, and Lauren, soon to be 21—both Helix Charter High School graduates.

“It was just before [Lauren’s] birthday that it happened,” Marilyn said. “So her birthday gift was her dad.”

For her part, Nicole,* a UCSD graduate, soon got engaged to be married. “She wanted Dad to walk her down the aisle,” he said.

Richard Morse says; “I’m around because I’m not done yet. There’s just stuff I gotta take care of—seeing my kids off. … I keep telling myself that I’m really lucky, that I’m alive because there’s a lot of other people out there that kept me alive.

“I’ve made new friends because of this. I’m a little more thoughtful about what I do and where I am.”

Among other things, Richard Morse took part in the 20th annual San Diego Heart Walk fundraiser Sept. 17 at Balboa Park—strolling the whole 5 kilometers instead of the optional mile. He was part of a group called Team Morse.

Then Morse got involved with a Make-a-Wish Foundation project—helping build a prefabricated backyard castle and swing set for an 8-year-old Coronado girl who he heard needs a heart-lung transplant.

“Spent a day putting that together,” he said. “Her dad is in the Navy. … Disneyland sent down one of their people dressed as Rapunzel.”

It was then that Marilyn Morse volunteered that her husband of 26 years had saved three lives.

She told of the hiker who fell from a cliff and whose waving arm was noticed by Richard, “who basically wrapped him up in a blanket” and carried him over his shoulder to safety and his waiting truck—away from a cold night in the high desert.  (The victim wore only a T-shirt.)

Richard also told of pulling a girl out of her car after it flipped on Interstate 8 and plucking a girl from the surf.

“The lifeguards thanked me,” Richard said.

Said Marilyn: “I honestly think that we all do things in our lives—that things turn around” to benefit the good Samaritan.

“You just step in,” Richard added. “You can’t let it go. I could have driven by [and said]: ‘Nah, don’t worry about it.’”

So the Morses are especially grateful for the first-responder who performed CPR that Saturday night in October 2010—whose name they still don’t know.

“We tried to find out,” Marilyn said, “but they said in situations like that they don’t want anyone to know that they were the ones that did this. And we would love for him to be acknowledged—because he’s the one who really saved [Richard’s] life.”

All they know is the man, in his 30s with short hair, was a “firefighter from Pasadena.”

So what are the Morses planning this weekend?

A return trip to The Village.

“I’m going to Oktoberfest, and I’m walking in,” Richard said Friday. “And I’m going to have a beer, and I’m going to hopefully see some of my friends. And we’ll see if the firemen show up.”

What does he plan for fire captains Pullen and Feneis?

“If they’re on duty, they get brats,” Richard Morse said with a smile. “If they’re off-duty, they get beer.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Lauren was engaged.

Cathy Kosich October 02, 2011 at 04:02 PM
It was great to see Richard, Marilyn, Nicole and Lauren at Oktoberfest this year! There was a lot to celebrate! Great article.

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