A second chance: Marco Island musician suffers near-fatal heart attack, saved by strangers
Jeff Hilt serenaded his wife with his smooth voice and acoustic guitar outside their Marco Island home on a recent Wednesday afternoon.
It's a life the 59-year-old local musician thought he'd lost forever after suffering a near-fatal heart attack late last month.
July 29 started out like any other day. Hilt met up with friends at a Naples country club to play a few rounds of golf.
"I was on the green getting ready to putt and the next thing I know it's Wednesday morning and I'm in the hospital," he said inside his home.
Hilt collapsed on the golf course and lost consciousness after suffering a widow-maker heart attack, which can often lead to sudden death.
Had it not been for two strangers playing golf nearby, Hilt's story may have ended differently.
Louis Cantelmo, of North Fort Myers, was the first of his group to see Hilt on the ground that day.
"I happen to look up at the green a ways back and see that (Hilt) was on the ground. I said to my friend Connor Arendell, 'I think that guy just collapsed'. So we jumped in the golf cart and sped over there," the 47-year-old said over the phone.
Cantelmo grew worried when he saw Hilt's face completely blue. But he said he was determined to give him a second chance at life.
Cantelmo had lost his father to a heart attack years before. But his only experience administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was with a mannequin.
He placed his hands on Hilt's chest and started pushing. Cantelmo said he grew exhausted after about 15 minutes so Arendell took over until emergency personnel arrived.
Hilt was transported to Physicians Regional-Pine Ridge and was discharged that following Thursday.
He refers to his heroes that day, especially Cantelmo and Arendell, as "angels."
"The fact that I'm six-feet-above instead of six-feet-under due to those two guys doing CPR, that's a good trade-off," he said.
Hilt considers the two family now. And Cantelmo can't agree more.
"There's a special place in my heart for him and his wife," Cantelmo added.
The traditional marriage vows the Hilt's took years before, " ... In sickness and in health ... " was never so fitting.
Hilt's wife, Sharen, 58, stayed with her husband every night he was at the hospital.
"I didn't breathe until Monday or Tuesday of that week," she said.
The Hilt's were high school sweethearts in New York. They moved down to Marco Island in the 1980s and split up before reconnecting about seven years ago. They got married in 2014.
"It's been a fairy tale ever since," Hilt said.
He considers himself lucky.
He had four arteries that were blocked and as a result needed four stents.
"But it was really the CPR that enabled me to get those stents," he added.
Depending how he does in the next three months will determine whether or not he needs bypass surgery.
The retired 911 technician now spends his days at home recuperating from the pneumonia he caught at the hospital and a few cracked ribs from the CPR. He plans to start cardio rehab in the next couple of weeks and get back to performing his tropical rock music around town.
"It's baby steps," he said.
He's received well-wishes and gifts from the community including soup, flowers and teddy bears.
"This man is so loved in Marco Island. It's not even funny. We knew that before but now it's even more," Sharen Hilt said.
Hilt, who turns 60 in the next couple of weeks, doesn't want to focus on the past and his heart attack. He's looking to the future. He hopes to use his stance in the community to serve as an advocate for CPR and encourage people to become certified.
According to the American Heart Association, immediate CPR can double, or even triple, a victim’s chance of survival.
"I feel like I've gotten a second chance and I want to give back in some way or another," he said. "It could happen to anyone and I'm living proof that if it wasn't for the CPR I wouldn't be here right now. Hands down."