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Lexington man had heart attack on a plane. Columbia-bound passengers spring to action

There are so many reasons Mark Thurston should be dead right now.

A series of coincidences and quirks of timing placed the 59-year-old Lexington man on a particular flight last month out of Charlotte, N.C., next to fellow Columbia-bound passengers who would end up saving his life.

Shortly before Thurston’s connecting flight back to Columbia took off on June 27, he told his seatmate he was heading to the restroom.

“I joked with him that, ‘your bag is not unattended,’” said Teddy Carfolite, a history and geography teacher at Columbia High School in Richland 1. “And then I saw him drop.”

Before Thurston got to the restroom, he collapsed in the aisle, struck by a massive heart attack.

That’s when a group of Richland County teachers and a former Army Ranger jumped into action, keeping Thurston alive for some 20 minutes before he was stabilized and transported to a local hospital.

Now back at home on the shores of Lake Murray, Thurston and his wife, Candy, on Friday welcomed to their home eight of the educators who helped save his life. They wanted to check on how he’s doing.

“I have more energy, I’m walking every day, I’m still doing my breathing exercises,” said Thurston, now out of the hospital for almost two weeks.

A man of faith, Thurston says he feels a connection with all the strangers-turned-new friends who filled his home on Friday, a bond forged by a brush with death.

“People have asked me, ‘Did you see a light? Did you see Jesus?’” he said. “I didn’t... but I felt all those prayers.”

Thurston was on his way back from a business trip to Minneapolis, rushing to meet his connecting flight to Columbia. On his way to the counter, he talked and joked with a group of 20 educators from Richland 1 and Richland 2 on their way home from a conference in Tampa.

“I got there right when we were boarding, and I did my yippy-skippy dance,” Thurston said. “I thought the hard part was over.”

Moments later, some of those same teachers were rushing to keep Thurston’s heart beating as he stopped breathing on the floor of the cabin.

“He was coming toward me, and he kind of collapsed into my lap. His head was on my leg,” said Brandi Dalton, a first-grade teacher at Rice Creek Elementary in Richland 2. “I thought he had passed out from the heat.”

Carfolite began looking through Thurston’s bag to see if he had any pills or information about a medical condition. Nathan O’Neill, an innovative program designer at Richland 2, hopped over the seat in front of him and started doing chest compressions as O’Neill knelt beside the emergency exit. Down the aisle came Norvel Turner, an ex-Army Ranger, who started giving Thurston mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

“It was a natural instinct, like when you see your buddy fall on the battlefield,” said Turner, now attached to U.S. Army Central at Shaw Air Force Base as a civilian safety director. “He was turning purple, and his mouth was frozen solid.”

For some 20 minutes, these bystanders were the only ones keeping Thurston alive, until first responders came onto the plane and began administering shocks to restart his heart.

Once Thurston was on the way to the hospital, all the exhausted passengers settled down for the flight, but not before a teacher called Candy Thurston from a number in her husband’s carry-on baggage to let her know what happened.

“To be honest, I didn’t understand what they were saying, although they were very calm in what they said,” Candy Thurston.

On the other end of the phone, Dalton was impressed with how well Candy Thurston handled it.

“She was so calm it was amazing,” Dalton said. “If I got a call like that about my husband, I would be a basket case.”

Candy’s son-in-law quickly drove her to the hospital in Charlotte, where Mark’s brother, who lives in Mint Hill, was waiting.

After more than a week in the hospital, part of which was spent in a medically-induced coma, Thurston is back at home, adjusting, he says, to a diet that will no longer include Bojangles’, but otherwise in good spirits.

“The doctor said if they had not started CPR when they did, he wouldn’t have survived,” Candy Thurston said.

O’Neill had just been trained in CPR a week before the flight, as part of a regular course offered by the district’s lead nurse.

“You never take those classes assuming you’re going to use it,” O’Neill said. “But it was fresh in my mind.”

Once he was back home, O’Neill emailed Dawn MacAdams, Richland 2’s head nurse, and said “thanks for the class.”

“It was a cool amount of cooperation between people,” O’Neill said. “You realize that even if you don’t know someone, you have responsibility to God to take care of each other.”

In many ways, Thurston was lucky to be where he was when the heart attack hit. He only ended up in Charlotte because his original flight out of Chicago was canceled due to weather. The teachers only booked their seats before they stepped onto the plane.

If he’d collapsed after he reached the bathroom, he would have been out of sight of the people who saved him. And the original scheduled take-off for the flight was delayed by about 15 minutes.

“If we had been in the air, he probably would have died,” Dalton said.

Turner wasn’t able to attend Friday’s gathering, but he offered some encouraging words to Thurston after he had triple bypass surgery himself a few years ago.

“I was walking a mile and a half within three months,” he said.

When the first responders finally came onboard, Dalton and everyone seated in front of her were asked to evacuate the plane. She said she stayed calm until she got down the ramp, then burst into tears.

“Everybody was standing around bonding together, praying. I never saw so many people praying so quickly,” Dalton said.

Dalton was once CPR-certified, but said it expired years ago. She’s asking when the district will hold another seminar.

“Because I can’t stand aside and make a phone call again,” she said. “It’s not about being a hero or an angel. It’s just doing what you’re supposed to do.”

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.
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