Bruno Boelstler is a breakfast person.
So around 7 a.m. one recent August morning, he drove to his neighborhood H-E-B at the corner of Slaughter Lane and Escarpment Boulevard in Southwest Austin to pick up some sausage.
The 88-year-old had barely left the parking lot when he suffered cardiac arrest, lost consciousness and crashed his silver Honda Civic into a rock in the median.
Cardiac arrest outside of a hospital or airport typically has just a 1% survival rate, his doctors said, especially when the heart stops for nearly 5 minutes, as Boelstler’s did the morning of Aug. 9. But thanks to the miraculous timing and quick thinking of Jason Freitag, a flight nurse and former paramedic, Boelstler is among that 1%.
Although Boelstler recalls little from the day of the incident, Freitag, 40, remembers it well. He had to be at work at STAR Flight by 10 a.m. He set his alarm for 7 a.m. so he could get a run in and be home in time to help his wife with breakfast for their four daughters.
“I was surprisingly on time that morning,” he said.
RELATED: Austin woman adopts 3 kids after their father, her neighbor, dies of cancer
As he neared H-E-B, he saw a car in the median and, as he got closer, saw a man inside, slumped over. He worked with Rick Gutshall, who was already on the phone with 911, to pull Boelstler out of the car and lay him flat so he could begin CPR.
“If there’s any question or any doubt, you just start CPR,” Freitag said.
Freitag administered CPR for about five minutes when Austin/Travis County EMS and the Austin Fire Department arrived and took over. They shocked Boelstler three times. On the third shock, his pulse returned.
“Normally, we think after four or five minutes of no heartbeat you start to develop irreversible damage,” said Dr. Jason Zagrodzky, a cardiac electrophysiologist and one of Boelstler's doctors. “CPR can extend that for you. Four minutes is kind of pushing the limits of what you can survive. But if somebody stops and performs CPR, they may be able to extend that time.”
Zagrodzky said that by calling 911 and starting CPR immediately, Gutshall and Freitag, who worked as a paramedic and an ER nurse before becoming a flight nurse, most certainly saved Boelstler’s life.
“There’s someone that’s still alive because somebody stopped,” Zagrodzky said. “People think it wouldn’t make a difference if they stopped or not. That’s not true. Even if you stopped and called 911, that improves survival. Every minute you can get EMS in position to treat somebody is going to have a dramatic increase in survival.”
Boelstler’s daughter, Karen Boelstler-Hagerty, posted on Facebook shortly after the incident: “It’s difficult to describe (recent events) except to say, ‘Miracles do happen!’ The heroic efforts of Jason giving CPR brought our dad back to life as EMS arrived. Had it not been for Jason’s skill, quick action and compassion, Dad would not be here today.”
Once EMS took over, Jason ran home and was in the kitchen feeding his twin daughters when his wife, Julia Freitag, walked in. He said, “Want to hear something crazy?”
“I just think it’s so funny that he’s so humble about it,” said Julia Freitag, who, as a physician assistant at Dell Children’s Medical Center, also frequently works with people in traumatic situations. “I’m like, ‘This is a big deal. You should be proud of yourself.’”
Freitag is quick to offer credit to Gutshall, who was driving behind Boelstler when he crashed and immediately called 911, and the EMS and Fire Department teams that arrived within minutes.
"Bruno had a lot of angels working in his favor that day," Gutshall said. "It was scary. The timing of everything and placement of a nurse amazed me."
Freitag agreed that the timing sometimes feels surreal. “Part of me does think, yeah, it was meant to be that everything lined up and I was there at that point in time,” he said.
Although Boelstler’s family was relieved when he regained a pulse, they had to wait several days to learn more about the long-term implications of the incident.
“You see your dad and it’s your dad from your whole life and all the sudden he’s comatose and intubated,” said daughter Cheryl Redfern. “You don’t know at the end of the day if it’s going to be life or death.”
Doctors had cautioned the family — which includes his four children, Redfern, Boelstler-Hagerty, Judy McGraw and Jim Boelstler — to expect brain damage. Boelstler had none. Within days, he was cracking jokes in the hospital, telling his family members, “I tried to kick the bucket, but I missed.”
Boelstler spent two weeks in the hospital and a week in rehab before returning home in late August. During that time, daughters McGraw and Redfern, who both live within a few houses of their dad, forged a relationship with Freitag’s family, praising him on social media and purchasing gift cards — to H-E-B and a running store, fittingly — to show gratitude.
“He’s become a part of our family forever, Jason has,” McGraw said.
Freitag said he, too, felt an instant bond with Boelstler’s family.
“There’s a weird connection with them. I feel like I’ve known them a long time already,” Freitag said. “I haven’t experienced that a lot before, where you meet somebody and you feel like you’re comfortable with them and you’ve known them for such a long time.”
On Sept. 6, Freitag and Boelstler — who both live in the Circle C neighborhood — and their families spent a morning filled with laughter and gratitude at Boelstler’s home.
As Freitag walked through the door, Boelstler stood to greet him.
“Good to see you again,” Boelstler said loudly with a laugh. Then, noticing they had worn similar outfits, added, “We have the same taste in shirts.”
Boelstler has been able to return to his day-to-day life for the most part, although he must now rely on his daughters to drive him places like his beloved H-E-B.
“You might have to learn about Uber and Lyft, too,” McGraw joked.
He’s still loves breakfast and recently started cooking again — he was looking forward to making ribs that night.
“This could have been so different. We could have been planning a funeral. Instead, we’re celebrating his life,” Redfern said to Freitag when they met. “It’s simply because of you. We are eternally grateful and forever in your debt for giving us these days. These future days.”
Boelstler said he had a great-granddaughter, Everen, who was born three days after his cardiac arrest whom he never would have been able to meet if it weren't for Freitag.
"Thank you," he told Freitag, "for giving me every day from now on."
RELATED: ‘The opportunity of a lifetime’: Once-homeless UT student is back in class nearly 50 years later
Zagrodzky implanted a defibrillator in Boelstler’s chest after the incident that will help him if he suffers another cardiac arrest. The doctor said that while Freitag was especially equipped to offer CPR in the moment, anyone willing to get involved could have had the same impact.
“A lot of health care professionals, even though they’re not at work, they’re still working. They never really quit helping people. Whether they’re getting paid for it or not it doesn’t matter,” Zagrodzky said. “But even if you couldn’t do CPR as good as a flight nurse, you could still increase the amount of time that he could be saved.”
Boelstler, a former engineer whose wife, Marilyn, died two years ago, said sometimes “I wonder, why am I still here?”
To which McGraw replied, “To tell this story. This story could change a life. Maybe somebody will read this and think, 'You know what, my CPR expired a year ago. I should do that.' Or, 'I should learn CPR.'”
No matter what, Boelstler's family emphasized, if you see something, do something.
“Get involved. Don’t worry about anything. Just get involved, because you could be the one to save a life,” Redfern said. “You could be somebody’s Jason. You could be somebody’s angel.”