Location: Essex, Connecticut
Date: August 7, 1993
On the afternoon of August 7, 1993, 36-year-old Eugene Heiney (or Gene, as his friends call him), an off-duty police officer, was trying to do some clean-up work on a house he had just finished building in a neighboring town. Gene stopped by his parents' house to pick up his younger brother, Erik, so he could help. Erik, who was 27 at the time, has Down syndrome, and is a Special Olympics athlete.
"Gene was going to be moving some boxes from his apartment up to his new home," their mother explained. "Erik doesn't get to spend as much time as he would like with Gene, so he was eager to go. One thing about Erik and other Down syndrome children is that they only see the good side of people. They never see anything bad about anyone." "He's more or less taken it up on his own to be competitive," said Erik's father, "whether it's the Special Olympics or in his volunteer work with the fire department or on the job. He's a special guy. That's it. He's just special."
"There was a pile of wood scraps that the builders had tossed out by the side of the driveway," said Mrs. Heiney, "and Gene decided that they should move that lumber out of the way, down the hill." Erik positioned himself on the top of the hill, by the wood, and began tossing it down to Gene, stationed below. "I love that--tossing it down," Erik said.
All of the sudden, Gene had started slapping at his legs. He had unwittingly disturbed a nest of yellow jackets, who had repaid his mistake by stinging him more than 20 times on the legs. He dashed up the hill to escape his swarming tormentors. "There's bees down there," he said, still panting for breath, warning Erik not to go down the hill.
"Are you all right?" Erik asked. "Yes, I'm all right, but don't go down there. I'm going to sit down in the garage for a moment," Gene replied. "Are you okay?" Erik asked when his brother came back from the garage. "I'm just hot," Gene answered, and then he began coughing and wheezing.
"Are you okay?" Erik asked again, his concern mounting. "I'm okay," Gene assured him, but Erik noticed that he was red and sweating profusely. He asked his brother if he didn't think he should go to the clinic, but Gene said no, asserting again that he would be all right. Then he said that he would lie down in the truck for a minute.
Erik looked in on him a little while later, and asked his brother again if he was okay and if he wanted to go to the hospital. "No, I don't want to go to the hospital," Gene said emphatically. He got out of the truck and collapsed face down a few feet away.
"Are you okay?" Erik asked once more, hoping that his brother would agree to get some help. "Yes, I'm okay," Gene stubbornly insisted. "Just help me get back into the truck." When he was back in the truck, Erik checked his forehead and found that it was very warm. Again, he urged his brother to go to the clinic. "I just have to lie down," Gene insisted. "You'll be okay?" Erik asked anxiously. "Why don't you go on. I'll be all right," Gene said.
Once Erik had left his side, however, Gene tried to use the radio in his car to call police headquarters, but got no response. Panicked by his deteriorating condition, he called out to Erik. When his brother rushed up to the truck, he told him to go to the nearest house and call for help. Erik dashed off down the hill, realizing how serious the situation had become from the tone of his brother's voice and the symptoms he had observed. He reached the house of Hayne Bayless.
"I opened the door and there was this guy there," said Bayless, "and he was trying to tell me something was wrong." "Up on the hill--stung by bees," Erik said. "Even though it was really hard to understand his individual words," Bayless said, "It was not hard to understand that something was really wrong."
Bayless called 911, and local fire department and ambulance volunteers were immediately dispatched to the scene, along with Middlesex Hospital paramedic Phil Coco, who happened to be a good friend of Gene's. "As I pulled up, Erik came down to the truck and told me that someone had been stung by a bee," Coco said. "He didn't indicate exactly who it was at the time. A volunteer of the Essex Fire Department had begun care. I performed a visual assessment and realized that the situation was life threatening, and then I realized that the patient was Gene Heiney. Anaphylactic shock begins very rapidly and generally speaking, there are only a very few minutes from the time of onset until death. To reverse the situation, we needed to establish some large-bore IVs and get some fluid going, to restore blood pressure, and we also--more acutely--needed to administer epinephrine and Benedryl."
"I said, 'God, let my brother live. Don't let my brother die. I love him,' and then I started crying," said Erik. In spite of the emotional impact of the scene, Erik was able to coordinate efforts to get his brother into the ambulance. "Get better," Erik said to Gene as he was being loaded into the stretcher for transport to the hospital. "I'll take you down to the clinic and you can watch him there," said Coco to Erik soothingly.
Gene was treated for his allergic reaction to the stings and was released the same day, although cases of this severity are often kept under observation for 24 hours. "I remember Erik standing behind me, and saying, 'Is everybody ready? One, two, three,' as they lifted me up to put me in the ambulance," Gene said. "I remember feeling this swell of pride that he was standing at my head, that he was giving the commands, and that he wasn't going to leave me. And as I was carried to the ambulance I heard him say, 'Don't worry, I'm not going to leave you--I love you.'"
"When Erik was first born, I'll never forget it," said his father, "It was December 8, and the doctor called me up the next day and he said, 'I'm going to have to tell you your son is a mongoloid.' I couldn't even say the word. That was 27 years ago. Today, I'm proud to be able to say that I have a son with Down syndrome."
"I think that regardless of anyone's age or handicap that they should be trained what to do in an emergency," Coco says, "because when an emergency strikes, you would be surprised what little kids and handicapped people are able to do when they know somebody's life is on the line. And I think Erik is a perfect example if that."
"I'm not surprised at all that Erik was able to handle the situation," said his mother. "It's just like him. I've heard people say that they wonder why God put such people on this earth. Well, this incident is just another examples of how capable these handicapped people are."
"Gene is my friend and a police officer, and I know he knows what anaphylactic shock is," said Coco, "but people go through denial--and in this case, denial almost cost him his life."
Gene now carries an epinephrine kit with him at all times. "Anaphylactic shock really isn't anything to fool with," he says. "There's nothing you can do to help yourself except to get to a medical facility right away. I remember having that conscious thought that Erik would be able to help me, and I had no doubt about that. I owe him--I own him big time."
"I love my brother," Erik said. "I kept my fingers crossed. Nice big hug and a happy ending. I say, 'God, thank you. You answered my prayers.'"