By Master Sgt. Chance Babin
/ Published November 06, 2018
ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga -- It was just a typical Monday morning in Lynn Haven, Florida for Tech Sgt. Michael Nieta. He was up and getting ready to go to the office. The weather was cloudy and he knew some heavy rain was rolling in on this summer day, but it was still a calm daybreak.
Neita, an Air Force Reserve Command Recruiting Service line recruiter assigned to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, could hear a lawnmower outside, but didn’t really think anything of it.
“My initial reaction was they must be trying to get the grass cut before it started raining,” Neita said. “Then it happened. There was a bright flash of lightning followed by a huge bang that shook the entire house. My initial thought was that it hit fairly close and it may have damaged something nearby. That’s when I decided to look outside.”
When Neita looked outside he saw what no one wants to see. His teenage neighbor was down and his twin brother was standing in shock next to him.
“In that moment you’re trying to make sense of what’s going on and I could see the panic in the brother that was laying unresponsive on the lawn and that’s when I decided to rush outside,” he said. “He looked bad. I didn’t think he was alive.”
He grabbed his phone and ran outside instantaneously and called 911. Neita immediately checked his pulse and began looking for signs of life to determine the best course of action.
“When I saw him, he was completely unresponsive, and in that moment I feared I may have lost him,” he said. “I dragged him under the overhang in front of the house and started CPR and that’s when it seemed as if some life had come back to him.”
“I would say it was about a minute or so before I started giving medical attention after rushing outside,” Neita said. “He was both unconscious and not breathing and that’s when I started administering CPR. It was just his brother and I until paramedics arrived.”
The twin brother’s face was stricken with panic throughout the incident, but he still mustered the courage to be a great wingman and helped as much as he could, he said.
“I learned CPR through Air Force training and self-aid and buddy care,” Neita said. “Never at all did I expect to use it. In that moment training started to kick in and it’s like you know exactly what to do. It was just a reaction when I rushed out there, never once did I stop to think about it.”
After administering CPR, Neita started to see the fruits of his labor pay off.
“The young man started breathing slightly but still very limited. I would say the ambulance took maybe 10-15 minutes to arrive but to me it felt like a lifetime,” he said. “At one point I remember yelling at the 911 operator asking what was taking so long with paramedics in which I later apologized.”
Once the paramedics arrived the young patient was still in critical condition.
"He came in with what we call return of spontaneous circulation and has done very well so far, but it's a very devastating injury to have," Emergency Room Medical Director Dr. Doug Scott said. "The longer you go without CPR, the longer you're not using your brain and your vital organs.”
The effects of a lightning strike can be quite severe and deadly. Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from where thunder is heard and a direct strike will cause immediate cardiac arrest.
"The electricity is such a high voltage it does two things: it flashes over your body, called a flash-over, which causes specific burns to the skin and then it's conducted, it likes water, that's how electricity likes to be conducted and it'll be conducted through the blood vessels which can cause severe burns to the blood vessels in your body," Scott explained.
Those burns often lead to nerve damage or death, but full recoveries are possible, especially if there is someone who can start CPR immediately.
For Neita, the whole experience was like a blur. His actions saved the young man’s life, yet he questioned himself after the experience was over.
“It was a huge adrenaline rush, it took a while to register what had happened,” Neita said. “Afterwards when you try to replay the situation. You think about all the things you could have done better to help him at the time.”
The good news now is that the teen is doing great and his life is back to normal, which could have been a different story if not for Neita’s heroic actions.
“He’s doing great! In fact, he has made a full recovery and has since started school,” he said. “I visited him while he was at the hospital where I was able to meet his parents. I still keep in contact with both brothers. They cut my lawn about a week ago which I made sure there was not a single cloud was in sight.”
Looking back on the incident, Neita said it has changed him in a good way.
“When I woke up that morning, I definitely didn’t expect something like that to happen. The whole incident just really cemented to me how precious life is,” he said. “I never cared about the acknowledgement or the recognition that came with it. My main concern was making sure he would be okay.”
A statement from the teen’s family read in part, “No one expects an accident like this to happen, but it could happen to anyone at any time. We are so grateful that we live in a community where everyone is so willing to help and are appreciative for the wonderful care that our son has received. The outpouring of love and support has been overwhelming."
When word of Neita’s actions reached his flight and squadron he was acknowledged as the Eastern Recruiting Squadron Community Ambassador Award Winner for the month and he was highlighted in front of her peers.
“I was immediately proud of him for taking quick action to preserve a life,” said Chief Master Sgt. Michael Nienhaus, recruiting flight chief, Eglin AFB. “My impression of Sergeant Neita is that he's a very caring and selfless person, and was very modest about his actions. It was difficult to get him to talk about it. This incident affected him deeply, though, and he was emotional about it even weeks after it happened.”
Because of his Air Force Training, Neita was able to perform CPR on this young man.
“As much as I know some people downplay the importance of the training we do, this is proof that it is valuable. Even though we may resist the training, we do internalize it,” Nienhaus said. “It absolutely equips us to save lives and there is a 16-year-old young man that's alive today who is proof of that.”
(Tech Sgt. Neita was an Active Guard Reserve AGR in recruiting at the time of this story. He is now a traditional reservist at Duke Field, Florida, working as a logistics specialist)