'I was lying dead on the floor with the phone in my hand'
ON April 20, 1993, Rita James died after suffering a massive heart attack.
She has no idea how long she was dead; only that ambulance officers found her lying on the floor of her Bli Bli home with no pulse or heartbeat.
She was still clutching the phone she had used to call for help.
By sheer good luck, the ambulance sent from Nambour was the only one equipped with a defibrillator, which ambulance officers used to revive Rita.
Without it, they later told her, she would have not survived.
While Rita's survival was almost a miracle, it also marked a turning point in her life as she and her husband Mike decide to devote their lives to repaying the incredible debt.
More than 20 years later, they and a small team at a Sunshine Coast Social Dance Club have raised more than a million dollars for worthy causes.
"Michael had gone to work and I was home alone ... the kids had grown and gone by that stage," Rita recounts as she sits in the lounge room of her Burnside home.
"I must have had the chest pains beforehand because I knew I had to get to the phone.
"The last thing I remember was the sunlight coming in through the green curtains in the lounge room.
"I remember nothing after that.
"I must have rung the ambulance and let them know I had chest pains but I don't remember.
"They said that when they got there I was dead on the floor with the phone in my hand.
"They defibrillated me there, which was a blessing."
Rita also remembers nothing of the next four days in hospital and relies on Michael, her husband of almost 55 years, to fill in the gaps.
He arrived at Nambour Hospital to find she had suffered a second heart attack and was not responding to treatment
"I got there just as they were wheeling her into casualty," he said.
"They got her in there and had to defibrillate her again but when I got there they told me she was gone.
"I said 'gone, be buggered - hit her again!'. So they did and she came good.
"But they threw me out. I wasn't allowed to stay in the room after that."
Eventually, medical staff told Mike that Rita was "a very sick girl" and suggested he bring their adult children in to see her as quickly as he could.
By the time they arrived, Rita had been put into an induced coma.
Never one to give up without a fight, Mike spent the next 24 hours sitting at Rita's bedside.
Then he saw her eyelids flicker.
"I called the nurse over and said 'I think she's waking up - her eyes were flickering' and she said 'that's just nerves, she won't wake up for a long while yet'," he recalled.
"I said 'okay, fair enough' but about 10 minutes later both her eyes opened up and she started squeezing my hand.
"I called the nurse over and she raced off to get the doctor.
"The doctor comes and says 'we've got work to do here - you go home and get some sleep'.
"This was about three o'clock in the morning, so I went home to Bli Bli and fed the animals, had a shower, changed out of my work clothes and at six o'clock I went back up.
"She was sitting there with all the tubes out and as large as life."
Mike and Rita's story would be lovely enough if it was solely about a man watching his wife come back from the dead but Rita's survival marked a turning point for the couple.
They realised they had been given a second chance few people get and decided to start doing something for others.
Soon after Rita's brush with death, Michel was told the Nambour Ambulance Station's only defibrillator - the one that had been used to resuscitate her - was 16 years old and on its last legs.
The couple were both members of the Suncoast Social Dancers and hit on the idea of using the dance club's funds to buy a new defibrilator.
After talking to other committee members, they spent $10,000 on the vital piece of equipment.
Mike was later invited to join the Nambour LAC (local ambulance committee) and quickly realised other equipment was desperately needed.
"About 12 months later there was an serious crash up on the Obi Obi Rd where a vehicle went over the side and they were trying to extricate people out of the vehicle," he recalled.
"They had to have one bloke scaling up and down the hill from the crash to talk to the hospital on the radio in the ambulance.
"There was no communication between the ambulance and the patient other than this paramedic running up and down this mountain
"So they came up with an idea that they needed a high-powered portable radio so they could relay directly to the hospital.
"We bought them four - they were just like a mobile phone but were a radio that could be used as a mobile phone as well."
More than 20 years later the couple estimate they and the dance group's committee have distributed a million dollars to worthy causes, including the Queensland Institute of Medical Research at Royal Brisbane Hospital, Burnside Primary School, the STEM group at Burnside High, a local respite centre and appeals for victims of tsunamis and bushfires.
The largest single donation was $65,000 to the burns unit at Royal Brisbane hospital after the Bali bombings.
"They rang me and said 'we've got eight critical patients coming from Bali to be treated in our burns unit and we just don't have any money - can you help?'," Mike says.
"We initially gave them $45,000 that we had in an investment account and we gave them another $20,000 after that.
"Out of those eight patients who came from Bali, they lost one. They managed to save seven of them."
In more recent years Mike and Rita have focused on local causes - something Rita is particularly proud of.
"The problem is that when you give many away to Brisbane, you can't necessarily see the result," she said.
"Because we work as volunteers and we get people asking us for help, we are able to channel it back into the community and help people all around
"And it really only came about because of an unfortunate circumstance from me and probably my feeling guilty and wanting to thank the ambulance for saving me."
They have no plans to stop their charitable work, although Rita still has heart problems and has suffered another two attacks since the one that almost claimed her life.
"I didn't know about the first one but the other two hurt," she laughs.
"The other two weren't as major."
And she says she is not scared of dying.
"I'm not scared of it any more. Why worry about it? It's going to happen some time.
"It doesn't hurt.
"My line of thought is to live each day to the very best you can and get up to as much mischief as you can because that makes it more fun.
"Get on with your life and do the best you can and don't worry about that sort of thing."
And she says she is "thrilled" that she and Mike are able to help others.
"I mean what's more important than the gift of life?
"But I don't want quantity of life - I want quality of life and I would ask that for everybody.
"I'm jolly sure people wouldn't want to be hanging around in a very bad state, just lingering around waiting for God to say 'it's your turn'.
"I don't want a lingering death. If I'm going out I want to be going out on my Harley at 94, taking a corner too fast and saying 'wow! what a ride!'.
"What I thought was important in my first life turned out not to be important.
"The privilege I've had in my second life is worth gold, it truly is."
Rita says she now celebrates two birthdays - the anniversary of the day she was born on February 24, 1940 and "the other one" when she was reborn on April 20, 1993.
"I don't make a big fuss about the second birthday but I celebrate it each and every day that I'm alive.
"I genuinely believe I have been very, very privileged.
"There's not too many people who get the chance to alter the quality of somebody else's life."