Retired Massachusetts nurse finds calling in teaching CPR

CENTERVILLE, Mass. (AP) — Retired nurse Gerald "Gerry" Tierney is not about to let his recent triple bypass surgery stand in the way of his passion for spreading the word about the lifesaving benefits of CPR.

Still recovering from the operation this summer and a subsequent stroke, Tierney dropped by a Hands Only CPR class at the Federated Church in Orleans on Tuesday.

The instructors passed muster with Tierney, 76, who has trained scores, if not hundreds, of Cape Codders in Hands Only CPR as a volunteer with the Cape Cod Medical Reserve Corps.

"I was happily impressed," Tierney said.

Hands Only CPR omits rescue breathing and focuses on chest compressions, allowing people to be trained in just up to 15 minutes, said Diana Gaumond, director of the Medical Reserve Corps.

In settings ranging from a hall at Brewster Baptist Church to the Cape Cod Mall in Hyannis and Barnstable County Fair in East Falmouth, Tierney has taught Hands Only CPR to everyone from children to an elderly woman with cancer.

"He's very, very passionate," Gaumond said. "His mission is to reach as many people as possible and teach CPR."

"This is a payback situation. I'm alive," said Tierney, who has had coronary issues for much of his life and had a heart attack in his 40s.

His best friend, Russell Booth, of Centerville, died at age 52 in 1999, Tierney said. "He had his one and only heart attack and died," he said.

A former high school English teacher, Tierney went to Lawrence Memorial School of Nursing in Medford for a change of career relatively late in life, as a married father of three children.

"I was the only guy in the class. I could've been most of the class's father," Tierney said.

Tierney worked for the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod full time from 1999 to 2007 and was a CPR trainer for Cape Cod Healthcare employees.

After the 9/11 attacks, Tierney, an Air Force veteran, joined the Medical Reserve Corps in 2002 as a volunteer out of a feeling of frustration and a desire to help.

"I was so bent out of shape when I saw the aircraft going," Tierney said.

Through the years he focused more and more on teaching the public Hands Only CPR, with his wife, Juliet, often by his side.

"We show them where to place their hands and how deep to push," Tierney said. The training takes place to the sound of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," which has the right beat for the compressions.

The song title is appropriate.

"Hands Only CPR can double to triple the chance of survival for anyone having sudden cardiac arrest," said Steven V. Day, senior volunteer manager with the American Heart Association.

"The Cape Cod Medical Reserve Corps and Gerry have done (an) excellent job at increasing training of Hands Only CPR in their community," Day said via email.

Only 10 percent of people who have cardiac arrest outside a hospital survive, according to the American Heart Association, which promotes teaching the public CPR and the use of automatic external defibrillators.

For every minute without lifesaving CPR and defibrillation, chances of survival decrease 7 to 10 percent, according to the association website.

Tierney's training has proved invaluable, said Lisa Freeman, parish nurse at Brewster Baptist Church.

Tierney has been offering the free training at her church since 2015, Freeman said. She said she knows of at least one church member who has used the CPR training during a medical emergency involving a family member.

Mark Adams, of West Yarmouth, said Tierney's instructions to keep going ran through his mind when he performed Hands Only CPR on a man who had collapsed on the sidewalk in front of him on School Street in Hyannis two years ago.

Adams, a construction supervisor, was working at Champ Homes on School Street at the time and had attended a training by Tierney two months earlier.

"A couple of things (Tierney) taught us was whether you think you're doing it right or think you're doing it wrong, don't stop," Adams said.

"It's better than nothing. He drilled it into our heads," said Adams, who was joined by other Champ Homes staff and a resident during the rescue operation on George Dakin, a Melrose man who had been on his way to the ferry.

Despite suffering a type of heart attack known as a "widowmaker," Dakin survived. In April 2018, Adams and the other rescuers received a Heroes Award from the American Red Cross of the Cape, Islands and Southeast Massachusetts.

"I'm still certified," Adams said. "It's a great thing to know."

Stories like this cheer Tierney, who said his health issues now prevent his being able to serve as CPR lead instructor for the Medical Reserve Corps.

His triple bypass surgery June 22 was followed by a stroke affecting his right temporal lobe when he was still in the hospital, Tierney said.

Tierney said he also was pleased the Medical Reserve Corps returned this summer to the Barnstable County Fair to teach Hands Only CPR to hundreds of fairgoers, including children.

"They are like sponges," Tierney said of children. "They will teach their peers."

But the days when Tierney would drop everything to teach a free class are over, his wife said.

"I got him to admit he's got to let go a little," she said.

Tierney said he considers providing health care to be a calling, not a past career. He said he might consider becoming an advocate for patients to make sure they get the care they need, regardless of insurance reimbursement.

Attending parochial school while growing up in Cambridge, Tierney said he took seriously the religious admonition to comfort the sick.

And he says he likes meeting challenges, such as helping the elderly woman with cancer find a way to learn CPR without having to use her arms, which were too weak to do the compressions.

After a bit of experimentation, Tierney said, he figured out the woman could use her foot to keep the blood circulating should her husband collapse with a heart attack.

"It worked!" Tierney said. "Your husband's down! Call 911! Use the foot!"

Online: https://bit.ly/2kxpoBx

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Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, http://www.capecodtimes.com