When Longwood resident Chris Connor collapsed from a heart attack on the Seminole Wekiva Trail, a series of incredible events led to a life-changing and life-saving encounter among three complete strangers.
When Chris Connor, 47, goes running on the Seminole Wekiva Trail near his home off Markham Woods Road, he recognizes faces he has seen time and time again – fellow runners and cyclists who are trail regulars like he is.
But there are a few particular faces that stand out more than others to him now: those of Longwood residents Jonathan Kennedy and Rich Horbert. Last year, the two men – then strangers both to each other and to Chris – saved Chris’s life right there on the very trail they all share.
Chris began running in his 30s as a way to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. His nephew, Longwood resident Easton Wargo, now 16, received a life-saving brain cancer treatment at St. Jude as a toddler, and the family participates in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon weekend every year. Over the years, they estimate they have raised at least $100,000 for the hospital.
Though he has completed six marathons and countless other triathlons, half-marathons, and other races, Chris says he doesn’t run to set records.
“In running, there are racers, and there are finishers... I’m a finisher,” he laughs.
One morning in September of 2017, Chris went out for one of his regular training runs in preparation for the December 1 St. Jude marathon. He and his family weren’t supposed to be in town that day – they were scheduled to be on vacation in the Bahamas, but Hurricane Irma had dampened those plans.
While his wife Wendy took a day off from work to rest at home and his children were at school, Chris ran 12 miles on the trail – well, almost.
He doesn’t remember the run now, but around mile 11, Chris collapsed near a bench and ended up lying on the ground, his arm stretched over his head and his cell phone nearby. He managed to call 9-1-1 before he lost consciousness. “I can’t breathe,” Chris told the operator before going silent.
Jonathan Kennedy wasn’t supposed to be on the trail that morning, either. The Longwood resident and medical device salesman never goes for his regular bike rides in the mornings – but that day, he wrapped up his work schedule early so he and his wife could attend a concert that night. When he rode past Chris lying just off the path, Jonathan first thought he was just resting from a long run. But as he passed him, Jonathan realized that something about Chris did not seem quite right.
Violating cyclist etiquette, Jonathan looped around quickly, cutting off another cyclist – Rich Horbert – coming from the opposite direction and stopped over Chris’s still body. Rich, annoyed by the breach of trail manners, first assumed that Jonathan must know Chris. Then he heard Jonathan call out to the man lying prone on the ground: “Sir? Are you okay?” Jonathan asked. Rich paused. He, too, could see something was not right.
Chris was not okay. Jonathan checked him for a pulse and found nothing. When Rich and Jonathan talk about that moment now, they have to fight back emotion. The next minutes would be critical to Chris’s life – but they also very much affected both Jonathan and Rich.
Rich immediately rode his bike down the path to find a cross street and figure out their exact location.
“It had occurred to me in the past that if something ever happened out there on the trail, it would be hard for first responders to find me,” Rich says.
With the location pinpointed, he raced back to Jonathan, who was by that time on the phone with the 9-1-1 operator.
Like the other two men, Rich also hadn’t planned to be on the trail that morning. He typically doesn’t ride on Friday mornings, either, but his work schedule that week had also changed. Next thing he knew, Rich found himself straddling a stranger and giving him chest compressions while another stranger, Jonathan, relayed instructions from 9-1-1.
The two men became unexpected teammates in a race to save Chris – but they still had no idea what had happened to him. Though both men say it felt like only a couple of minutes, they actually performed chest compressions on Chris for seven minutes before Seminole County Fire and Rescue could reach them.
Chris owes his life to a number of incredible coincidences, not the least of which is that both Jonathan and Rich happened to know CPR.
Jonathan learned CPR a few years ago in a class at his daughters’ daycare center. Rich, whose children are grown, learned at Annunciation Catholic Church in Altamonte Springs, where he and his wife are active in leadership. Both men note that, contrary to popular perception, chest compressions alone are enough to save someone’s life; giving mouth-to-mouth breath assistance is no longer considered necessary.
“You might break someone’s ribs giving them chest compressions,” Jonathan says, “But they will live to feel the pain of a broken rib.”
Later, both the first responders as well as the doctors and nurses who treated Chris would explain that seven minutes of CPR is nearly unheard of – and a good outcome after seven minutes of CPR is the stuff of miracles. In most cases, after only a few minutes, the brain is deprived of too much oxygen to recover.
Just as the EMTs arrived, the skies opened up; it began pouring rain. As onlookers watched, the techs went through their protocol, shocking Chris’s heart with paddles twice before it responded. When they loaded him onto the ambulance, the firemen refused to leave him; they traveled by his side to South Seminole Hospital, where Chris was airlifted by helicopter to Orlando Regional Medical Center in downtown Orlando.
As Chris was taken away, the Sheriff’s deputies who met EMTs at the scene thanked Jonathan and Rich for all they had done, but they gently broke it to the men that their efforts were likely in vain: People don’t survive that kind of medical event.
When it was over, the men parted ways without even exchanging contact information with each other. Stunned and shaken by what had transpired, they returned home to their wives.
Meanwhile, Wendy Connor thought it was strange that her husband had not come home in time to pick up their then-10-year-old daughter, Maggie, from elementary school. He wasn’t answering his phone and he hadn’t texted her, so after she picked Maggie up and dropped her at their house, Wendy drove around looking for Chris. As she arrived back home, she saw what no one ever wants to see waiting for her: Police officers were at her door, talking to Maggie.
“I sat in my car and said to myself, ‘You’re about to get some very bad news,’” Wendy remembers.
She was, unfortunately, correct. They told her Chris had suffered an incident and was being treated at ORMC. They gave her a number to contact. It wasn’t a doctor or nurse. It was the hospital chaplain.
The one glimmer of hope was that Chris was still alive, but the prognosis was grim. Doctors had little hope that Chris would survive, let alone recover.
Wendy and her family learned that Chris had suffered a fluke heart attack at the unlikely young age of 46. Though he did not have a lot of plaque built up in his arteries and he had never had cardiac issues before, a small piece of plaque had broken off and become lodged in just the right spot to give him what doctors call a widowmaker heart attack – a 100 percent blockage of the left anterior descending (LAD) artery. The LAD artery is responsible for carrying fresh blood to the heart to deliver oxygen to it, so when it is blocked, the heart stops quickly and without much warning.
Chris doesn’t remember feeling any symptoms of the heart attack, but now he knows the signs to look for:
“My cardiologist says it will feel like a mule kicked you in the chest,” Chris says.
Other symptoms include radiating pain, difficulty breathing, feeling anxious and nauseated, and sweating for no reason.
After three days of intense treatment, all while he was unconscious, Chris finally awoke.
“Wendy said, ‘Don’t freak out, but you had a heart attack,’” Chris remembers with a laugh. Chris was able to go home the same week. He wore a portable defibrillator for a few months and now takes several medications to help keep his heart in check, but Chris has otherwise made a full recovery. His doctors say his fitness level before the heart attack had much to do with it.
Still, Wendy says they now believe in miracles.
“The right people were in the right place at the right time to save his life,” she says.
Though Chris’s cardiologist used state-of-the-art equipment to bring him back, the doctor says that Jonathan and Rich are the people who actually saved his life.
“They’re the reason he’s not brain dead,” says Wendy. “It took everyone on the trail that day – from Jonathan and Rich to every single first responder – to save Chris. We are so thankful to all of them.”
Once Chris began recovering, Wendy was able to connect with Jonathan and Rich. When they found out Chris had actually survived and was going to be okay, both broke down in tears. To this day, the three share what Wendy described as an “instant bond.”
Months later, the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office invited Jonathan and Rich to a ceremony honoring lifesaving efforts by police officers and other first responders. Of everyone honored, they were the only ones who had actually saved a life with their actions.
Still, Jonathan and Rich do not consider themselves heroes. In fact, they admit the experience was more trauma than triumph.
“I’m just a person who did the right thing and used skills I happen to have that I hope to never have to use again,” says Jonathan. “The real heroes are the brave and courageous first responders who sign up for this every day. I have always had respect for them, but now I have it tenfold.”
Both men say they learned something about themselves that day: They are people who run toward an emergency and do not hold back.
“I now know what I’m made of, and that is good to know,” says Jonathan.
Rich says he would encourage others to act as he and Jonathan did:
“Get involved,” says Rich. “Don’t hang back. Do what you can to help.”
That means learning CPR. “Take the CPR class,” says Jonathan. “Do it for yourself, for your family, for the stranger you have no idea you are going to meet.”
It took Chris a while, but he is now back to running and raising money – even if he now runs with a nitroglycerin pill in his pocket, just in case. In fact, he recently completed the OUC half marathon on December 1, where he raised more funds for St. Jude. Chris hopes to return to the St. Jude Memphis Marathon weekend this year, though he’ll stick to the half-marathon distance for the foreseeable future. When he ventures out for his training runs, he sometimes crosses paths with Jonathan and Rich out on the trail.
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Chris won’t be setting any records for speed, but he is still very much in the race. He’s a finisher, and on that day in September of 2017, he wasn’t finished yet.