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Sam Aliotta's heart stopped on the plane from Denver to Detroit Sept. 9. Lucky for the 94-year-old Warren resident, two exercise physiologists with Henry Ford Health Systems, Matthew Saval and Sheryl Sebastian, were on board and knew just what to do.

— Sam Aliotta was flying back from a wedding in Denver with his son and daughter-in-law when his heart stopped.

"I know I was in the airplane," said the 94-year-old Warren resident. "And then I was seeing people looking down on me and I was wondering what the hell was going on."

Lucky for Aliotta, two exercise physiologists from Henry Ford Health Systems were aboard the Sept. 9 flight and knew what to do to save his life.

Wednesday, he and his family met and thanked his rescuers during a tearful reunion at Henry Ford Health System's William Clay Ford Center for Athletic Medicine.

Matthew Saval, 42, and Sheryl Sebastian, 51, were coming back from a conference of the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabiltation in Denver. About two hours into the flight, they heard someone yelling for help.

"There was a split second of, 'What do I do now?' " said Saval, of Novi. "Then my training kicked in."

Sebastian took the plane's automated external defibrillator and "we got the pads on him and we were able to resuscitate him," the Clarkston resident said.

During the flight, Aliotta was in the aisle seat, with his daughter-in-law Barbara next to him in the middle seat and his son Larry in the window seat.

Barbara Aliotta, a retired supervisor for cardiology and neurology at St. John Hospital, felt his body shuddering and noticed he wasn't responsive.

When she couldn't feel a pulse or tell if her father-in-law was breathing, "I got my seatbelt off, got up on my knees and screamed, 'Help! I need help here!' " she said.

Saval explained to Aliotta how they laid him down in the aisle, shocked his heart with the defibrillator and monitored his vitals until they landed.

"That's good," Aliotta said. "You saved my life then."

Saval replied, "Well with the help of Sheryl and the grace of God, I think somebody saved you."

Aliotta had two stents put into his heart following emergency surgery. The retired Ford Motor Co. employee was released from the hospital a few days later, and his prognosis is good, said cardiologist Dr. Chandrakant Pujara.

Aliotta, who served in the Pacific during World War II, said he hopes to get back to running errands, picking up his newspaper every day from the dollar store and driving to church on Sunday.

Barbara Aliotta said she is glad that her father-in-law met his rescuers. Two decades ago, she performed CPR on a man while on a flight from San Francisco.

"I don't know what happened to that man. They just took him away at the airport on a stretcher," she said. "That's why I'm glad this is happening today."

lrazzaq@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2127

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