How love, luck and first responders saved a life at a St. John's salon

Two sisters in their 80s went out to get their hair done. They came back with a new appreciation for life, chance and EMTs.

Joan Williams thought her sister Shirley Rex was going to die in the salon

Sisters Joan Williams and Shirley Rex have been going on weekly outings for the past 20 years. (Krissy Holmes/CBC)

Joan Williams is able to keep her composure as she tells the tale of a recent weekly outing with her sister, Shirley Rex — until she gets to the part about how grateful she is to everyone from the hair salon's owners to the emergency medical technicians for saving Rex's life.

Then the 80-year-old woman's voice shakes.

"She's 84 years old and she has three children, and two grandchildren and about eight great-grandchildren," Williams said. "So there's a lot of happy people as of last week."

For the last 20 years, the sisters have been getting together each week for what Williams calls a "sisters' day out."

On Dec. 10, their special sisters' day out took them to the Village Shopping Centre for fresh perms at Salon Frederick's, which is also the Kutting Zone salon. 

Williams thought Rex was going to die in the hair salon. (Krissy Holmes/CBC)

But while Rex was getting her hair washed, she started to feel unwell. She told Lorraine Parsons, the Kutting Zone's owner, and Parsons alerted Williams.

The women offered Rex a snack but she didn't want it. She was acting so strangely, Williams knew something was very wrong.

"She turned white, the colour of a glass of milk. The whitest I've ever seen her." So Williams asked Parsons to run and call 911.

Luckily, Parsons used to work in a doctor's office and was able to be specific with the 911 dispatcher, telling them she thought there was a cardiac emergency. Williams piped up and said Shirley had a heart valve replacement and that she was on blood thinners.

She thought her sister was going to die right there in the salon.

One beat lower and she may not have made it

Parsons ran to get the defibrillator and the other employees began to clear a pathway through the shop for a gurney. Four paramedics arrived to help.

They save lives every day. And the ordinary person doesn't hear about it.- Joan Williams

"She was in the sink with her head back, with wet hair, and they just lifted her up, put her on the gurney, brought her in to the back of the ambulance and started to work on her."

Williams told them she wasn't leaving her sister, and they sat her in the front seat where she listened to what was happening to her sister behind her.

She heard them tell Rex that her heart rate was 19 beats per minute — and that a regular heart rate is 60 beats per minute. And then they told Rex they were giving her an injection, that it'd hurt, but that it'd make her feel much better.

Moments later, Williams heard them say Rex was looking much better and the ambulance set off for the Health Sciences Centre.

Williams says the incident left her with a deep appreciation for the work of paramedics. (Krissy Holmes/CBC)

On the way, the driver of the ambulance turned to Williams and said calling 911 was a good move. If her heart rate had been one beat lower, he said Rex wouldn't have made it.

Rex was admitted to the hospital right away and outfitted with a pacemaker the very next day.

"The size of a watch, apparently," Williams said.

She was released on Friday and is now staying with her daughter, where she's recovering.

"She was the prize patient on the [cardiac-care] ward," she said. "I think they like a happy story, too, and a happy ending."

In awe of first responders

Not only did Williams walk away from the experience with her beloved sister alive and well and ready for the holidays, she left with a deep appreciation for the work first responders do.

"I want to give credit to Lorraine and Fred [Parsons, owner of Salon Frederick's], everybody, because they all did their bit. But the thing I think that stood with me the most … I've never experienced ambulance attendants before. I was just amazed at the good work they do," she said.

"They save lives every day. And the ordinary person doesn't hear about it."

Williams holds up a picture of her and Rex. (Krissy Holmes/CBC)

Williams also wants to be trained to use a defibrillator, and wants to remind everyone, especially seniors, to always carry with them a list of medications they're on and medical problems they have — just in case.

The sisters' ordeal may change Williams' plans for Christmas presents, too. After the women were finished with their hair, they had plans to do some Christmas shopping, Williams said. On her own list that day was Rex's daughter. 

"If I don't get out and get her daughter's Christmas gift, I'm going to get Shirley to put a big red bow on somewhere and walk into the kitchen on Christmas morning and say, 'Here is your Christmas gift from Aunt Joan.'"

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