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From flatline to the finish line: a lifesaving moment creates a unique friendship

A man and a woman running together
Oatman and Kohler running together during the 4.3 mile leg of the Ragnar Race

Imagine one day you decided to head to your local gym to get some exercise. You start your workout when suddenly you hear a loud thump behind you. Turning around, you see a man has collapsed on the floor, unconscious and not breathing. As a health care professional, you immediately jump into action to help, turning an ordinary day into a critical moment. 

Abbey Oatman, a physician assistant for a Penn Medicine Lancaster General Urgent Care, didn’t have to imagine because she was the one who sprang into action.  What’s more, her actions that day led to changes in her own life—including what may be a new lifelong friendship.

The day that changed everything 

A man and a woman stand together after running a race
Oatman and Kohler celebrating together after running the first leg of the Ragnar Race

In early December 2022, shortly after getting on the elliptical at her local gym, Oatman heard a commotion behind her and when she turned around, she saw a man had collapsed by the treadmills. Fred Kohler, a regular at the gym and an avid runner, had gone into cardiac arrest. Oatman, along with members of the gym staff and another bystander, immediately ran to his aid. 

Kohler, who was in his late 60s, had no pulse and wasn’t breathing. Using her medical expertise and training, Oatman, along with gym staff, started CPR within one minute of Kohler collapsing. As they were doing breaths and compressions, an automated external defibrillator (AED) was brought to them and the two women were able to shock him within three minutes of his heart stopping. After shocking him, Kohler’s pulse resumed, and he began to regain consciousness. By the time paramedics arrived on the scene, he was awake and talking before being taken to Lancaster General Hospital for bypass surgery. 

“When the incident was over, I looked around the gym, really noticing the condition of some of the people who were exercising and realized that we may not have had the same level of success with resuscitation as we did with Fred, if it wasn’t for his commitment to good health,” stated Oatman. “Fred’s health saved him and that encouraged me to get back on the elliptical and finish my workout.” 

In the aftermath of this event, Oatman decided to pursue running and started training for various races.

From recovery to running races  

Fast forward a few months, and Kohler was well into his cardiology recovery journey and slowly getting back into running races. Knowing that Kohler was an avid runner, Oatman decided to reach out to him and ask for any tips and tricks that she could use in her training. The two quickly bonded over their shared interest and began running together once a week. 

In August 2023, Kohler and Oatman ran their first race together—the Honey Run in East Hempfield Township, in Lancaster, organized by the same gym where Oatman saved Kohler’s life. They ran most of the race together and crossed the finish line with friends and family cheering them on. 

As the two continued to train together, Oatman decided to sign up for the Ragnar Race, a relay-style run that goes from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, in the fall of 2023. There are 12 people on a team and each individual has to run three different sections of the track. 

Training for a race of this caliber is no easy task, but Kohler was there to support her and guide her in her training. He even helped her scout her race path and figure out the course so she could train more effectively. As they neared the race, Oatman asked Kohler if he would be interested in running one of the legs with her. Oatman’s first section was in the Harrisburg area and Kohler ran alongside her for the 4.3 miles that made up the first leg. 

“It was such a cool moment finishing those 4.3 miles and seeing her friends and family there to celebrate her,” said Kohler. 

Awarding bravery and an evolving friendship 

A man and a woman stand together at the finish line of a running race
Oatman and Kohler together at the finish line of the Honey Run race

To honor the quick and heroic actions of Abbey Oatman and members of the gym staff, the East Hempfield Township Commissioners held a ceremony and presented them with the Citizen Lifesaving Award. Kohler was in attendance, along with Hempfield Township police, family, and friends. 

“As a provider, you do the trainings over and over again to recertify, but to some degree, you wonder how you will respond when put in the situation and you hope you respond correctly,” Oatman said, reflecting on the day Kohler went into cardiac arrest. “This was just a perfect combination of being at the right place and having the right people there at the right time.” 

Now, over a year later, Oatman and Kohler’s friendship has continued to blossom. While they continue to run and train together, they are also starting to teach each other activities that they enjoy. Oatman has a background in swimming, and she has recently started to teach Kohler how he can strengthen himself with swimming, training together at the pool. In addition, one of Kohler’s true passions is trail running, which he has now introduced to Oatman. 

“There’s nothing I can do that is equivalent to her saving my life, but I can do something. I studied distance running for 10 years now, so the least I can do is share that knowledge with her,” said Kohler. “It’s been very rewarding and with her attitude, she really wants to learn. She’s so smart and adapts quickly, and it’s just been so rewarding to watch her grow…I’m having a hard time keeping up with her now!” 

Friendships can blossom from almost anywhere—work, school, or in this case, a life-saving moment. Both of their lives changed on that day in December 2022, leading to a unique and rewarding friendship that continues to bring them both over the finish line. 


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