'A real miracle': Survivors of cardiac arrest, first responders honored at Naperville Fire Department banquet

Steve Kalkofen choked back tears as he detailed the experience of being brought back to life by members of the Naperville Fire Department.

He was followed, one by one, with similar stories from about a dozen others whose lives were saved in the last two years by breakthrough CPR techniques practiced by the city's first responders.

Cardiac arrest survivors and the many people responsible for saving them — firefighter-paramedics, telecommunicators, hospital workers and others — were honored Thursday night at the Naperville Fire Department's second Survivors Banquet held at Meson Sabika in Naperville.

“Thank you for making me be a survivor,” Kalkofen said.

Since the Naperville Fire Department made a commitment to improve CPR training and techniques, survival rates for cardiac arrest incidents have improved from 9.8% in 2018 to 21% in 2021. The department reported 15 cardiac arrest survivors in 2021, compared to only six in 2018.

“When you look around this room today, our first responders, our men and women of the Naperville Fire Department have that will,” Naperville Fire Chief Mark Pouknaitis said. “Instead of just going through the motions, they take that extra step to make that important decision, whatever it may be within those cardiac protocols.”

Among the department investments made since 2018 was purchasing mechanical CPR devices that automatically compress the chest. Impedance threshold devices, used to improve circulation during CPR, and better diagnostic equipment also were purchased.

The department became involved with the Advanced Cardiac Resuscitation program, opening the door to a nationwide network of information and technique improvement.

Those techniques helped save six-year-old William Whitney after he nearly drowned in a pool in August 2021. At Thursday's banquet, William and others, like Andrew Kleehammer, were able to meet the people who saved their lives and hand them certificates and awards recognizing their efforts.

“It means so much to me and my family,” Kleehammer said. “The people that saved me, it was a real miracle.”

Fire Department Division Chief Scott Salela said the number of people signing up for CPR classes in the city skyrocketed in the wake of the sudden cardiac arrest suffered on national television by Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin.

While the department typically sees a handful of people signing up each week, about 70 signed up after that football game.

“We're doing good with our CPR numbers and our save rates,” Salela told the crowd. “But we can always do better, and we need your help.”

  A table full of certificates at Thursday's Naperville Fire Department Survivors Banquet gives an indication of the number of people in the city who were saved by CPR in the last two years. Kevin Schmit/
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