Of the thousands of calls the Wauwatosa Fire Department receives every year, one from May 18, 2015 still stands out.
"Something like this, you remember," said Assistant Fire Chief Jim Case.
When Case called members of Engine 51 and told them one of their previous patients wanted to meet them and offer gratitude for saving his life, "they knew exactly which call we were talking about," he said.
The call was indeed memorable; Now Newspapers profiled Wauwatosa resident Richard Kulikowski and his wife, Anne, earlier this year regarding an event that nearly tore the couple apart — forever.
A routine gone awry
In May of last year, Richard had returned home from working a shift at his manufacturing job in Mukwonago and was sitting on the back patio with his wife — something the couple did nearly every day — when Anne noticed something wasn't right. Her husband was slouched in his chair. She called 911, returned to her husband, yanked his tongue out of his mouth and began CPR.
"I kept saying, 'You're not leaving me,'" Anne said in an interview earlier this year. "It seemed like years."
The CPR wasn't enough. Richard died on the couple's back patio.
Soon, emergency responders rounded the corner and while Anne was nearby pleading and praying that her husband would come back to life, the emergency crew — known as "Engine 51" — revived him. He was rushed off to the hospital with a strong heartbeat and normal breathing to receive more care.
Doctors told the couple fluid had built up near Richard's lungs, putting pressure on his heart and causing him to experience cardiac arrest.
Richard had died for eight minutes. Doctors told Anne that, at best, he would suffer brain damage.
A miraculous comeback
Against all odds, Richard made a full recovery. He spent several days in the hospital and months at home taking antibiotics and receiving care from his wife, whom he calls his best friend. The couple met while attending Wauwatosa East High School and graduated in 1975 before later settling into the same neighborhood they grew up in.
On Aug. 30, 2016 Richard and Anne returned to the Wauwatosa Fire Department to thank the crew that helped ensure the couple would stay together for years to come.
Richard — who Anne described as shy — took a few minutes to address the crew and offer his gratitude. Richard returned back to work last year and is "100 percent" back to normal, Anne said.
The fire department thought so, too.
"He looked very healthy and happy and seems to be enjoying life," a statement from the fire department said. "Although the visit was quick, it was easy to see the emotional connection between the rescuers and their patient."
Case said even the two squad members who were off duty Aug. 30 came into the fire department to reconnect with the couple.
"Our crews were honored to have Mr. Kulikowski stop by today and share his thanks," the statement said. "One of the responding crew members, Captain Dave Page, told him that while his thank you was appreciated, it wasn’t really needed. Just seeing him standing in front of us, alive and smiling with his wife, was more than enough."
Anne credited much of the reunion to Sgt. Brad Beckman of the Wauwatosa Police Department. The two met through Anne's involvement as a community safety liaison. When Beckman learned the Kulikowskis wished to show their gratitude to fire department personnel, he helped coordinate the meet-up.
Case said the afternoon provided motivation for department members who are "often there at the worst times of people's lives." To see a positive outcome from a situation that seemed hopeless was emotional.
"To see him walk in with his wife there, healthy and smiling, it does more for our guys than anything," he said.
Anne held back tears as she described the heartfelt reunion.
"It's just an amazing, amazing full circle because they didn’t give up," Anne said.