South Charlotte

Marking another chance at life

Fifty-seven-year-old John Potts plans to display the silver pin on a stand in his living room, where he keeps memorabilia.

The small red heart on the left side of the pin and the red "5" inside a blue background on the right represent a day Potts thinks about all the time - a stifling afternoon in August when a routine driver's-education lesson took a serious turn.

It was Aug. 26, 2010. A longtime health teacher, Potts had been giving behind-the-wheel training to Providence High sophomore Erin McCann.

Many Providence alumni would remember Potts' name. He was an assistant coach on the football team and taught driver's education back when it was an official CMS class. When the district outsourced it to the Jordan Driving School, Potts taught health classes until he retired from CMS in 2007 and picked up more hours at Jordan Driving School.

Erin pulled the small sedan in front of Providence High and stepped out of the car. Her father, who'd been waiting to pick her up, went to shake Potts' hand.

"Just as I reached to shake his hand, he went down like he'd fainted," said Potts. "I checked his pulse, his breathing."

Nothing. Potts started CPR. A bystander called 911.

Potts took his first CPR class just after college, when he was an assistant football coach at South Meck High. He'd taken a refresher course about three years ago.

While Potts alternated compressions and mouth-to-mouth, Erin was hysterical. "She was saying 'Dad, dad, dad,' " said Potts.

A school counselor came outside and stood with Erin while Potts continued CPR.

Then someone showed up at Potts' side - "an angel from heaven to show up right then at that time," said Potts.

Stacey Poncer, a nurse in the radiology department at Presbyterian Hospital, was driving through the parking lot for a soccer game when she saw McCann lying on the concrete. She took over the chest compressions while Potts continued mouth-to-mouth. Paramedics John Fisher and Kevin Staley arrived soon after.

Fisher, a south Charlottean, was on a break at the Barnes & Noble store a short distance down N.C. 51 at the Arboretum shopping center when he got the call.

"It was a pretty dramatic scene," said Fisher, but Potts had done "everything right." The immediate CPR helped restore blood flow in McCann's body, a huge help to paramedics.

"I remember saying, 'This guy is going to live to see his daughter graduate,' " said Fisher.

Fisher doesn't normally visit patients in the Intensive Care Unit, but he visited McCann twice. He had a good feeling about this save.

McCann, who'd gone into cardiac arrest, had no history of heart problems. In fact, the self-described fitness fanatic has competed in a number of triathlons and extreme running and cycling competitions. One week earlier, he'd been in Pennsylvania for a race.

But as the father of five lay in a coma in the ICU, those escapades couldn't seem farther from reality.

McCann had only a 30 percent chance of recovery that first night. If he did survive, the risk of brain damage was high. The McCanns even contacted their priest at St. Matthews, in case they needed him to give McCann last rites.

Six days later, McCann woke up.

His recovery was long, however, and during the first six months he was terrified. He had trouble recalling his PIN number at ATMs. He couldn't remember his kids' birthdays. And he didn't want to tell his wife how much he was struggling.

Last Monday - 17 months after the accident - officials at Medic helped arrange a reunion for McCann, Potts and Fisher in observance of American Heart Month.

McCann's story is a reminder to the public of the importance of learning CPR, said Medic spokeswoman Kristin Young.

McCann said he doesn't remember the accident or even the week preceding it, but at the reunion his gratitude was immense. At several points during the reunion, his voiced cracked and tears welled up.

During the reunion, Fisher reached inside his blue jacket and removed one of his Medic lifesaving pins, emblazoned with a heart on one side and the number "5" (for number of saves) on the right. "These are hard to come by," Fisher told Potts. "You earned this."

"I was gone and these guys brought me back," said McCann. "They gave me the opportunity to see my kids grow, to spent the rest of my life with the woman I love."

"Life is good, and I'm here to enjoy it, thanks to these men," he said.