GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For a brief moment recently, Fred Bivins, the long-time face of Grand Rapids’ Festival of the Arts, was dead.

But if and when your heart stops, it’s best that it happens in front of someone who can do something about it.

“I have a new birthdate, and that’s Nov. 12, 2021,” he said on Tuesday.

That’s the day the 71-year-old stopped at Lewandoski’s Market on the West Side of Grand Rapids for smoked kielbasa, none of which he remembers.

“I don’t remember anything until about 20 days later,” he said.

What he learned later was that he was at the cash register when he hit the nearly century-old wood floor. He had suffered a cardiac arrest.

“One doctor said, ‘You were dead before you hit the floor.’ … I was gone,” Bivins said. “Then along comes Gary.”

Here’s the lucky part: The owner of Lewandoski’s market is Gary Szotko, a retired Grand Rapids deputy fire chief who knew exactly what to do.

While his son called 911, Szotko started CPR.

“Just chest compressions,” Szotko said. “They’ve changed the standards. You’re no longer giving breaths.”

The compressions were hard enough to break ribs and fracture a vertebrae. They were soon enough to save his life.

He kept going until firefighters from his old firehouse, Bridge Street station, showed up.

“I knew everybody that was here,” Szotko said of the first responders.

He said he did CPR on probably three dozen people in his 28 years on the fire department, and only once it worked. Even first responders can’t always get there on time.

After 25 days at the Meijer Heart Center and about two weeks at Mary Free Bed, Bivins’ first stop while headed home was Lewandoski’s. It was a tearful reunion.

“I couldn’t go home without thanking Gary for saving my life,” Bivins said.

If Bivins had an alias, it would be Art. He’s an icon among local artists, creates art out of wood, has volunteered for Festival of the Arts nearly a half-century. He has served as the Festival’s board president and has won the Spirit of Festival Award.

“The rest of my life is a bonus. I’m only here because of Gary and everybody who followed,” he said.

One of the first things he’s doing with his bonus time is raising money, up to $4,000, for an Automatic External Defibrillator, an AED, for the market.

It’s something the owner thought he’d never need.

“Customers come in and out so quickly, you say, ‘Well, what are the chances, the likelihood of something like that happening?'” Szotko said. “Fred proved on Nov. 12 that it can happen at any time to anyone and any location. … My hope is that this will get out to other small businesses that think, ‘Oh, it won’t happen, or the likelihood is small.’ Well, yeah, it may be small, but you can make a big impact.”

Bivins is asking donors to send checks to Fred/AED, 808 Carpenter Ave. NW, Grand Rapids, MI, 49504, or contribute through PayPal at