Teacher finds purpose in work after near-death experience
WEST MONROE, La. (AP) — Even with advances in modern medicine, most people don’t die and live to tell the tale later.
Lt. Col. Brian Buck, who leads West Monroe High School’s Air Force Junior ROTC program, was returning to the building after watching the last bus for the day leave on Nov. 15. Then his heart stopped.
“Have you had deja vu? Have you ever woken up from a dream, and it eludes you? It just disappears, and you grab at it — you’re just clutching at it? Mix those two sensations together, and that’s kind of what happened,” he said.
Buck described passing out “like an old black and white TV set just going down to the little dot when you turned it off. Apparently, I made a good five or six paces with, just, nobody driving upstairs.”
Witnesses said he fell straight backward, and when he fell, he split his head open on the pavement.
“Luckily, it didn’t take too awful long for students to notice, hey, there’s a guy on the ground,” he said.
Students flagged the vice principals, who helped him within seconds. They stopped the flow of blood from the back of his head and called for the ambulance.
Buck went in and out of consciousness. He kept trying to get back up, but that was a no-go.
When he checked his Apple watch later, his pulse had bottomed out.
At Glenwood Regional Medical Center, Buck kept his wry sense of humor, despite head trauma. When a nurse asked what brought him in that day, he replied “the ambulance.”
He remembers the attending doctor asking him if he was a man and could take pain. They needed to staple the back of his head shut, and he was told that part of the head can be slow to numb and require a lot of anesthesia.
“Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The third one, I started to feel. The fourth one, I was like, ‘I think we can stop that now,’” Buck said.
Luckily, they only needed four staples.
The hospital did a CAT scan to check his head and numerous tests on his heart, including an ultrasound, electroencephalogram, an electrocardiogram and an MRI.
They called it bradycardia — a slower heart rhythm.
“They’re like ‘sometimes this just happens,’” he said. “The heart just slows down to nothing.”
In the hospital he started to know what a slowdown would feel like. He kept having episodes, and they kept defibrillator device pads so if they had to bring in the crash cart, they could bring him back quickly. Buck said knowing he’d be monitored so closely made him feel secure.
On Nov. 16, he fell in the room and came to with people standing over him. On Nov. 17, “I was gone for a while that time.” His heart had stopped for 10 seconds. They were about to zap him with the defibrillator.
Buck’s pacemaker was installed later that day. At 48, he wasn’t expecting a pacemaker at that point in his life.
He was awake for the surgery and could feel movement and pressure in his chest. He remembers talking to the anesthesiologist and listening to the West Monroe Rebels playing their away game at Dutchtown during the procedure.
When Buck was released from the hospital, he was told not to suddenly raise his arm so the leads of his pacemaker wouldn’t be disturbed. He said he took it easy for a couple weeks.
The pacemaker is working. About 3 percent to 5 percent of the time, his heart gets a shock to beat properly. He still gets a tweak near the incision, but he feels worlds better.
“I just never expected it at this age,” Buck said. He referenced a meme that says if you’re young and you fall, people laugh at you, but if you’re old and you fall, people rush to your aid.
“I guess now if I fall, people kind of tend to run toward, so I guess I’m old,” he quipped.
He was back at work Nov. 30.
‘It wasn’t my time’
JROTC wasn’t his first calling. Buck was active duty in the U.S. Air Force for more than 20 years, filling various roles.
During his tenure, he worked for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii. The command is responsible for bringing soldier’s remains home to honor the promise to “never leave a person behind.”
He said they’ll sift through a field to find remains and bring them home.
When they were students at Southeast Missouri State University, Buck and his wife got POW/MIA bracelets. Buck’s first one, Staff Sgt. Russell Bott, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces lost in Laos. His wife got Col William Henderson Mason, who died piloting a blind-bat mission dropping flares along the Ho Chi Minh Trail so other planes could see to attack the enemy.
Buck’s first bracelet started to crack from wear because he pulled it on and off at the gym, so she gave him hers under the condition that he never take it off. In all the photos of his military career, the bracelet is on his right wrist.
About a year into his stint at JPAC, Buck was at a family update conference in Miami. One of his coworkers noticed the bracelet for the first time. Mason’s remains were in the laboratory and about to be returned to the family. Someone asked him how long he’d been wearing the bracelet — a little over 17 years.
Later that year, Mason’s wife, Irene, came to Hawaii to escort the remains to Arlington. Mason was a lieutenant colonel in life but had posthumously been upgraded to a full colonel.
Regulations require someone of the same rank as the deceased or higher to serve as the escort. Buck was designated as a special escort for Mason to Arlington National Cemetery. Buck gave Irene Mason his bracelet just after a general presented the flag to her.
It’s one of the moments he points to as something he was meant to accomplish.
“I kept thinking, you know, in Iraq, I almost bought it in Iraq. Minutes and meters separate me from the maker, but I always thought, ‘you know, there’s a reason why I survived this, survived that,’ and I don’t normally see it until after the fact,” he said.
″‘Oh, wow, if I hadn’t lived through that, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.’ You know, I’m just as religious as the next person, but sometimes I think, you know, there’s a plan still out there for us. There’s a reason why. It wasn’t my time. This whole thing when I fell on the pavement, it wasn’t my time. There’s something else I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what yet. I’m sure I’ll figure it out after the fact.”
‘There’s a reason I’m still here’
Buck is the 2017-18 teacher of the year for WMHS, an honor chosen by his peers. He also was the 2016 Headquarters Air Force Junior ROTC Outstanding Instructor of the Year, an honor selected from more than 870 senior aerospace science instructors from around the nation.
“I think I’ve found what I’m supposed to do,” he said.
He loves the JROTC program, and he loves helping students find direction. He said each one will find a different path, but he tells each of them “go find yourself.”
One of his former students, Airman 1st Class Salem A.H. Rhea, was recently chosen to take part in a prestigious honor guard.
Buck’s son recently was chosen to fly for the U.S. Air Force National Guard in Mississippi, which also is a hefty selection process. He’ll be the second generation to serve in the agency.
“I keep thinking there’s a reason I’m still here and it’s just to see all these good things happen,” Buck said.