Just weeks after a 15-year-old Mainer collapsed from cardiac arrest in a Gilbert, Ariz., restaurant and was rushed to Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, he walked back into the hospital on a recent Friday to thank the men and women who helped save his life.

“I can’t begin to say how grateful I am for every single person in this room,” said Gabriel Walker to a room full of emergency and hospital workers on March 1. “It’s been very overwhelming taking all of this in. If it weren’t for even one of you, I might not be in this room. We might be at a funeral instead. I know it’s a little grim, but it’s true.”

Around the room, people introduced themselves to the visiting high school sophomore and told him how they each cared for him.

“I’m Joanne and I helped take care of you that night,” said Joanne Alamillo, sitting next to Walker at a big conference table, a big smile on her face and her eyes wide with emotion.

With his left arm in a sling, the only visible sign of injury, Walker shook hands, hugged and thanked everyone.

“I’m Dr. Fink and you look way different,” said Dr. Andrew Fink, an emergency room doctor.

Around and around the room, more than 30 people introduced themselves and explained their part in Walker’s care — from the marginal to the extensive.

“I’m the guy who pounded on your chest for nine minutes that night,” said Brent Bandura, a nearly nine-year veteran of the Gilbert Fire Department.

Walker and his cousin Alison Hutchins, 20, flew into town from Portland, Maine, to visit their grandparents on Feb. 17 at the start of their February break. After driving to get sushi, the family sat in the bar waiting to order.

Mid-conversation, Walker slowly flopped over and his family lowered him to the floor.

“I thought he was joking,” said Jeannine Dupuis-Layton, Walker’s grandmother.

However, it became apparent that his behavior wasn’t part of his normally goofy personality, she said.

Another patron, who chose to remain anonymous, administered CPR while paramedics from Chandler and Gilbert fire departments rushed to the scene.

“It just goes to show you how important bystander CPR is,” said Dupuis-Layton in retrospect.

While he had a faint pulse when they arrived, Walker’s heart stopped again in the ambulance, Bandura said.

“Here I was worried about him losing his cellphone or laptop on the plane,” Monique Walker said. “Who would have known that two hours later… .”

Paramedics and Fink, the emergency room doctor, spoke to Monique on her mother’s cellphone.

“I don’t remember even speaking to you twice,” she told Fink from across a conference table. “I think I was just in shock.”

After staff at the hospital stabilized him, they transferred Walker to Phoenix Children’s Medical Center in Phoenix by medical helicopter, since Mercy Gilbert no longer has a pediatrics department.

In total, Walker was at Mercy for about two hours, Fink said.

Yet within a matter of hours, many people had changed Walker’s life.

“You all have played such a big part of my life and I don’t even know any of you,” he said.

Most patients leave the emergency room and usually the patient and those involved in their care never meet again, Fink said.

“You don’t usually get the chance to meet a patient after they leave,” Fink said.

Walker’s heart attack was caused by a rare genetic disease that has a high risk of sudden cardiac death, Monique Walker said.

“If he had been at home in Maine, with the time difference, he could have been in his room watching 15 episodes of ‘Dr. Who’ and we wouldn’t have known,” she said.

With the smooth transition from restaurant to emergency room to helicopter to Phoenix Children’s, Walker was able to not only speak to his rescuers. He was able to take a ride on the same helicopter that took him to PCH, only this time with a smile.

“I see these cases, where CPR is delayed and they people don’t make it out of the hospital or [if they do] with brain damage,” Fink said.

Walker’s grandmother said she and her husband plan to renew their CPR certification soon.

“It’s really nice to see that what we do makes a difference,” said Brent Bandura. “This is what we train for.”

Distributed by MCT Information Services