JoAnne Poncio awoke to a loud thumping noise on the morning of March 29. She immediately called out for her husband, who had already gotten out of bed and gone into the bathroom, but he did not respond.
A few seconds later, she found Frank Poncio unconscious on the bathroom floor.
“He wasn’t breathing. He didn’t have a pulse,” she recalled. “I thought he was gone.”
On Friday morning, the Poncios shared an embrace while standing together at Houston Fire Department Station 31 near Garden Oaks. They also smiled, laughed and expressed their gratitude to a group of strangers who helped Frank survive cardiac arrest nearly six months beforehand.
Mark Williams, a 911 operator who was stationed on North Shepherd Drive near Tidwell Road, took JoAnne’s call and talked her through performing CPR on her husband in their Northline home. A few minutes later, seven firefighters and emergency medical technicians from Station 31 arrived and took over the resuscitation efforts, getting Frank’s heart to start beating again shortly thereafter.
Then, when an ambulance arrived, Frank was placed on a stretcher and rushed to a hospital, where he received more medical treatment and underwent an operation. The 78-year-old grandfather went home 33 days later and has continued to recover from his heart attack, which was complicated by a bout with pneumonia.
“I’m very grateful,” he said Friday at the fire station. “These guys, they know their stuff.”
Dr. David Persse, HFD’s director of emergency medical services, attended the reunion and handed out commendation letters to Williams, six first responders from Station 31 and JoAnne Poncio. Persse said Frank’s wife played a critical role in the “chain of survival,” a five-link response to cardiac arrests as outlined by the American Heart Association.
Persse said the first link is early access to 911, the second is early CPR by a bystander, the third is early defibrillation, the fourth is early advanced care by paramedics and the fifth is expert care in a hospital.
“If you have all those links and it occurs quickly, you get good outcomes like this,” Persse said. “If you’re missing a link, or it goes too slow …”
Persse said all cardiac arrest patients have about a 10 percent chance of survival. He said patients’ hearts start beating again about 40 percent of the time if someone is there to provide immediate medical assistance, such as CPR, and a little more than half of those patients survive.
HFD Captain Charles Kimble, who was Station 31’s top-ranking firefighter on duty March 29, said he and his fellow firefighters rarely learn the fate of people they help in medical emergencies. Kimble said he didn’t know Frank Poncio had survived until Wednesday.
“Even if we get a pulse back on scene, the survival rate is very, very low,” Kimble said. “For them to walk in the station is not real common.”
Even more remarkable is that one of Poncio’s sons is a Houston firefighter, which the members of Station 31 did not know until after resuscitating him. Alex Poncio works for Station 18 on the southeast side of town and said his father’s experience has given him even greater pride in his job.
Alex Poncio, who as a youngster helped his two older brothers deliver copies of The Leader, was on hand Friday to thank his HFD brethren.
“Treat every run as important as the last one and the next one,” he told them. “You just never know who it’s going to be. It could be your brother’s dad or your own dad.”
Williams said he subscribes to a similar philosophy in his job as a 911 operator, acting as if every caller is a relative of his. He said he speaks to so many distraught callers that he didn’t even remember taking JoAnne Poncio’s call, but he was no less touched that he helped her husband survive.
Williams said cases like that keep him going to work every day, and the job he did March 29 helped Frank Poncio get back to work as well. The former delivery driver and United States Merchant Marine, who previously served in the U.S. Army, now works part-time for his son-in-law’s homebuilding and remodeling company.
Because his heart stopped beating for a few minutes, affecting his motor skills, Poncio said he initially struggled to walk and continues to have problems with his speech. But he still drives and now eats better and exercises more, having lost about 50 pounds since his near-death experience.
It was a traumatic ordeal for his family. But his daughter, Dionnes Clements, said Friday’s reunion was a “happy occasion.”
“It’s a celebration now, and we just want to let the firefighters and everybody involved know to just keep doing what they’re doing, because it really does make a difference in people’s lives,” she said. “We’re thankful for my dad and having him in our lives and back with us.”