CLINE: Real-life heroes living among us

It's a question you hope never to answer but ask yourself anyway: When faced with a life-or-death situation, how would I react?

Not many of us have been put to the test, but for several locals that question is no longer hypothetical. On Thursday, four individuals were recognized by the Gwinnett County Fire Department for their heroic actions in such situations. Later that same day, Marie Payne showed similar valor, saving a man's life on Interstate 85.

Four men, one woman, three incidents. They have varying degrees of training but share the same story. Despite how they felt physically and emotionally, they rose to the occasion when their help was needed most.

For Ken Manning, Will Hamilton and Lance Cook, it was in the moments after basketball teammate Mike Lulko collapsed and went into cardiac arrest.

For Jim Fuller, it was when a female patron at the restaurant he was eating at lost consciousness after choking on her food.

For Payne, it was during her commute home when she saw an unresponsive man slumped behind the wheel of his moving vehicle.

"I think it's a read and react sort of thing," Hamilton said. "You act not necessarily as a trauma rescuer, but as a human. You do whatever you can to help."

Payne agrees, relaying a singular focus that the men who tended to Lulko felt.

"All I could think about was, ‘I've got to get to him,'" Payne said of her rescue of Bill Gunby of Newnan, who suffered an apparent heart attack while driving on the busy interstate. "It's like everything else around me wasn't there. It was total focus on what I had to do. I didn't pay attention to the cars passing by."

There were no speeding cars at the Suwanee Sports Academy where Manning performed CPR on Lulko, his teammate and friend. But he also spoke of a calm amid the chaos.

"It went from the initial shock of ‘this is happening' to ‘we need to do something here," said Manning, a Suwanee resident and Chief Operating Officer of Trident Medical Imaging. "As soon as you dive into it, everything goes away; you have complete blinders on.

"I was totally unaware until other people told me that 100 people were standing around the basketball court watching."

Manning was trained in CPR, as was Hamilton. Payne said she was well-trained as safety coordinator for the Saxon Group. But none of them had the experience of Fuller, retired from the Gwinnett County Fire Department after 25 years of service.

Which explains Fuller's calm approach to saving a choking victim.

"I've spent half my life working in emergency services," said Fuller, who now lives in Lula. "It was just second nature.

"I used to teach CPR and I'd tell them, ‘You guys have to be the hero here.' It was just a matter of listening to my own words of wisdom to the people I taught."

Fuller may have been calm, but it doesn't mean he wasn't affected by the rescue.

After a year sabbatical following his retirement, he is actively pursuing a job in emergency services.

Hamilton, professional services coordinator for Trident Imaging Services, said you can't help but be changed by such an event. Even though he's well-trained in CPR, he says he will "take it a lot more seriously."

"It shows how precious life is," he said.

Said Manning: "Thank God that Suwanee Sports Academy had that AED (automated external defibrillator). That technology is clearly what saved (Lulko's) life."

Manning said he was very emotional following the rescue of Lulko. He said he was brought to tears while relaying the story to his wife later that day — and moved to get a cardiac scan thereafter.

Payne is less than a week removed from her heroics, though she doesn't think the word applies. She said she was merely doing, as Hamilton expressed earlier, what any person should do for another.

"I don't consider myself a hero," Payne said. "I feel I'm lucky to be at the right place at the right time.

"I'm like everyone else: I work hard and I work eight hours a day. But when it comes down to seeing someone who needs help, I will take that time to help them."

It's a credo we'd all do well to live by.

E-mail Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.