Milwaukee Local 494 member and registered EMT Christopher Burgin helped save the life of Local 494 retiree Phil Kissinger (far right) during the local’s annual brat fry in July.
Burgin was honored by the members of Local 494 and Business Manager Dean Warsh (center) at the August local meeting.  

Milwaukee Local 494 member Phil Kissinger was on his way to ask a friend how he was recovering from surgery when his vision started fluttering. 

After a stroke starts, victims typically have only a few hours to get treatment and every minute counts. The Local 494 challenge coin was awarded to Burgin saving Kissinger from, at the very least, significant injury.

He was at the local’s annual Brat Fry, a July celebration that brings the 100 or so current and retired members of the Kettle Moraine unit of Local 494 together for a brief meeting and then a big meal.

Union meetings are one of the only nights the newly-retired Kissinger goes out, he said. Normally, he is at home, not quite alone. His wife works first shift at 6 a.m.  and is in bed early. Most other nights, Kissinger would have been on his own. Union meetings, even the ones without beer and brats, are good chance to see old friends, he said.

Until he had couldn’t really see them anymore. A quarter of the image in each eye was unsteady.

“It was shimmering, like when you see stars,” Kissinger said.

Kissinger’s friend, recording secretary Dan Casper, was half a year past a triple bypass and Kissinger meant to ask how he was feeling. Now, Casper was doing the questioning.

Casper sat Kissinger down, got him some water and went for help.

What Kissinger didn’t know was that one of the valves in his heart was damaged beyond repair, clogged with clotted blood called plaques. A piece of the plaque broke free from the wall of his heart and raced through his aorta up into his brain, lodging itself in his optic nerve. It strangled the blood supply, suffocating the neurons.

From the moment his vision began to flutter, a clock began ticking. There is a short window where permanent damage may be avoided if the clot is broken up with blood thinning drugs. But you must get to the hospital in time. They must know what’s wrong in time. They must give the right drugs in time and the drugs must start working in time.

Three hours is all you have.

The Kettle Moraine unit isn’t large, says Local 494 Business Manager Dean Warsh. Everyone knows everyone else. They’ve almost all worked together on construction projects at one time or another. Sometimes they even worked with each other’s fathers or grandfathers.

Casper knew, of all the people in the room, who to ask for help: Christopher Burgin, journeyman inside wireman, 14 -year member of Local 494, a registered paramedic and a member of the Howards Grove Volunteer Fire Department.

Burgin was given a Milwaukee Local 494 challenge coin by Warsh for diagnosing Kissinger’s stroke and getting him to the hospital within minutes of Kissinger falling ill.

Soft-spoken and humble, but well known to the membership, Burgin is at every meeting, collecting COPE payments and checking dues receipts at the door.

Kissinger had worked with Burgin at the Edgewater powerhouse in Sheboygan. He’d worked with Christopher’s grandfather, Hank, for five years when he was an apprentice.

“Dan came over just as my grandfather and I sat down,” Burgin said. “He told me I had to come now. Something was wrong with Phil.”

Kissinger hadn’t moved. His eyesight was just as bad, but now a pain grew from the back of his neck, spreading like the roots of tree into his head and down his back.

Burgin began to ask him questions: do you have any history of medical complications? Are you allergic to anything?

In a normal stroke, half of the body will experience some level of paralysis. Burgin asked Kissinger to perform some physical actions to see if that was happening to Kissinger. There were no signs that one side was weakening.

“He was not consistent with having a normal stroke,” Burgin said. “He was self-aware, alert and oriented. But this wasn’t the first time I have seen a stroke. Every brain is different so every stroke is different. It depends on where it is in the brain and how the person responds.”

But Burgin had seen enough.

“I don’t know what he got from those questions, but he made a decision that waiting wasn’t the thing to do. He stood up, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go for a ride,’” Kissinger said.

From Casper asking him to come over to walking out the door took less than 10 minutes.

Hank got ride home from someone else.

“Christopher just grabbed Phil and they left,” Warsh said. “I didn’t find out until I was going home, it happened so fast.”

Phil was taken to a hospital in Sheboygan, given blood thinners to destroy the clot on his optic nerve. Four days later, he was taken to Milwaukee by ambulance where the faulty heart valve was removed and replaced with a valve from a bovine donor.  

A month after surgery, Kissinger returned to the Kettle Moraine Local 494 unit meeting. Together with Warsh, they presented a challenge coin to Burgin, to thank and honor him.

“Chris was embarrassed,” Warsh said. “He kept saying, “You know I don’t do this for recognition. This is what brothers do for each other.’ That’s Christopher.”

Warsh has now nominated Burgin for the IBEW’s Lifesaving Award, one of the highest honors in the Brotherhood.

Burgin said he hopes that the attention will focus on the importance of every IBEW member getting first aid training. He also wants people to consider serving in a local volunteer fire department.

“Especially if you are in a rural setting, everybody is screaming for volunteer first responders. There is a great need nationwide,” Burgin said. “It is a good thing for the community to help your neighbors.”

Six weeks after he came home from the hospital, Kissinger has had time to consider just how lucky he was.

 “One day out of 31 that I happen to be at a meeting and I am talking to a guy who had surgery and he responded and so did Christopher,” Kissinger said. “I haven’t tried to consider what would have happened if I had been home alone, taken a Tylenol and gone to sleep. I’m very fortunate, no other way to look at it.”

And he said there is a lesson in it for every member of the IBEW, active or retired.

“I’m a pretty good argument for going to your union meeting,” he said. “Go talk to some brothers and sisters. What could it hurt?”