Officer Revives Fellow Cop After Heart Attack On Duty

Officer Michael A. Riley administered CPR and was finally able to detect a weak pulse and get Officer Bryan Nickelson breathing. By that time, additional police officers were on scene reporting the events on the radio.

Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot

Having recently transferred to the Senate Division of the United States Capitol Police, Private First Class Michael A. Riley didn't expect the first Saturday he'd worked in six years to be so eventful.

It was February and a frost had come in, so he wasn't too surprised when he first heard that fellow officer Bryan Nickelson had fallen on the ice. But it turned out that Nickelson fell because he'd had a massive heart attack. Riley's continued CPR not only saved the man's life, but prevented brain damage.

For his actions, Riley has been named the February 2011 Officer of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

On that cold day in 2010, Riley monitored the radio from headquarters. It was just after roll call. Another officer was there with 48-year-old Officer Nickelson, and it didn't sound like his fall was that serious. But then Riley heard the radio traffic requesting that the DC Fire Department ambulance hurry because Nickelson wasn't doing well.

"So at that I thought, Could he have fallen that bad?" says Riley. "I'm a trained EMT, so I grabbed a medical bag and ran out to the car and responded there."

A bloody nose and a gash on Nickelson's head seemed to confirm Riley's expectation that falling on the ice had knocked him unconscious, so the officer proceeded to treat him with that in mind.

"I found Officer Nickelson on his back. He was unconscious and having trouble breathing, but he was breathing," remembers Riley. "I thought his tongue was occluding his airway, so I did a modified jaw thrust to clear it, but within 10 seconds he stopped breathing."

Still thinking Nickelson had sustained a head injury, Riley checked his eyes, expecting to see at least one pupil dilated, but they were normal size and nonresponsive. "He had fixed pupils, no pulse, and he wasn't breathing. He was basically dead. At this point I'm thinking, What in the heck is going on?" Riley says.

Riley administered CPR and was finally able to detect a weak pulse and get Nickelson breathing. By that time, additional police officers were on scene reporting the events on the radio.

"Everybody was like, 'Oh my God, you saved his life.' As soon as they said that, he stopped breathing again," Riley recalls.

Refusing to give up, the officer continued CPR, not stopping until the ambulance from the DC Fire Department arrived. When it did, the occupants were surprised to see that the man they were there to treat was the husband of Battalion Fire Chief Shelly Nickelson. Everyone, police and fire, became teary eyed, hoping for the best.

"He came back to life two times while I was there doing CPR," says Riley. "Then they shocked him on the scene, got no response, continued CPR, and in the back of the ambulance they brought him back another two times."

Just six months before, Riley had been recertified as an EMT and updated his CPR training. It paid off for Officer Nickelson.

"Only at the hospital did we realize he'd had a major heart attack. He had four blocked arteries," says Riley. "He had a massive heart attack and hit the ground."

After an emergency quadruple bypass and two weeks in a drug-induced coma, Nickelson woke up in the hospital with no recollection of what had happened. He did not suffer any brain damage, thanks in large part to Riley's CPR.

"I think it's important that everybody stay current on CPR and first aid. You don't need to be an EMT," says Riley. "Especially with loved ones and fellow police officers, it can save someone's life."

And of course, that's exactly what Officer Riley did for Officer Nickelson, who is now back on light duty after receiving a successful heart transplant. The two have become good friends who now talk on the phone regularly.

Riley was named Officer of the Year by the Capitol Hill Executive Service Club and National Exchange Club for 2010, and he received the Lifesaving Award from the U.S. Capitol Police for 2010. He says "It feels good" to receive recognition for his actions, but that's secondary to the outcome for his friend.

"I'm just glad I was there to help out a fellow officer," Riley says.

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Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot
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