We call it muscle memory. It’s the automatic reaction brought about through competence, repetition and confidence. It’s also a prevalent concept of first aid training because it can save lives. On an otherwise average Tuesday, Lt. Bryan Hardin’s instant reaction to help a choking stranger may have done just that.

“I’ve been a paramedic for a long time and instincts took over,” said Hardin, a paramedic with the Iowa City Fire Department in Iowa and a first-time student at the CDP, attending the Hazardous Materials Technician for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) Incidents course. “I was in the right place at the right time, and I’m glad I was there to help.”

Help he did as Tim Irvin, a photojournalist who works in the CDP’s External Affairs Office, began choking while eating lunch in the headquarters cafeteria, a room brimming at the time with paramedics, emergency medical technicians (EMT) and other experienced responders attending training at the facility.

Hardin became a certified EMT in 1999 and a paramedic in 2003.

“He just reacted,” said Donnie Belser, the Leidos training manager for the CDP’s main facility and a bystander in the cafeteria as Hardin came to Irvin’s aid. “It was a bit surreal because everything got quiet and no one else really moved. But it was clear that Mr. Hardin had the situation under control, and that he had a room full of responders ready to assist if necessary.” Under federal contract, Leidos staff and instructors deliver the training at the CDP.

Belser, who has worked at the CDP since 1999, said though he couldn’t recall a similar situation occurring during his years at the center, he was not surprised by how the situation unfolded.

“In such a situation, too much response could be chaos,” Belser said. “As it was, I think everyone was assessing the scene and identifying what was needed.”

“It was clear to me that he couldn’t breathe,” said Hardin. “[Irvin] was sitting at the table next to me and coughing. And when he stood up I knew he needed some help and couldn’t clear his airway on his own.”

Hardin said Irvin stood up clutching his throat, a common indicator of a choking victim. Hardin swiftly moved to Irvin’s aid, applying several abdominal thrusts to clear Irvin’s airway.

“It’s all kind of a blur,” said Irvin, “but I remember coughing and then realizing that I really couldn’t breathe. I stood up and immediately started to get tunnel vision, and at that point it got a little scary.”

Hardin said once he had cleared Irvin’s airway it was apparent that he was breathing and would likely be okay, so he resumed his lunchbreak with his classmates.

“I’m glad he was there and, though the situation was a little embarrassing, I’m very glad he didn’t hesitate to help me,” Irvin said. “I guess if you’re going to choke on your lunch, a room full of paramedics at the CDP is a good place to do it.”

In a brief ceremony, Hardin was presented with a Leidos challenge coin, a rare honor reserved for students who demonstrate the highest degree of leadership and excellence.