My little friends… they are the “b” in subtle. They sneak up on you, they annihilate your reserves, they take you to places you’d rather not go.
Afterward, sprawled on the deck and breathing like a wounded animal-
I remembered. The waves of memory hit hard, hit fast.
I can still smell the fresh-cut grass, feel the chalk-dust on my hands as I knelt next to the track and the man who’d collapsed after running his time trial that day, at West Valley High School. That evening, I’d come straight over from climbing at the outdoor tower at UAF, from hours spent climbing and laughing in the afternoon sun with a dear friend. I was only there at the Flint Hills Mile race to observe, to cheer for another friend who was laying down some serious heat in the men’s competitive wave.
I sat on the grass in the center of the field, tired and happy, sweaty and chalky, soaking up the evening sun on that June day. The first men’s wave launched with the crack of the starting pistol and I cheered for their efforts. One mile hurts so damn bad, when you give it all you’ve got. It’s a bitch to pace the laps, to know what you have in reserve in advance, to lay it down and let your lungs catch fire.
I found myself watching one particular runner: older, determined, geared up with his ‘things’ (his earbuds and iPod, shiny new running shoes and shorts, and the determination that comes from doing a thing that’s just beyond your comfort zone). He was running solid, but his color was “off”. His gait was off-beat, like his knees were hurting or maybe more. He finished strong, breathing hard, to the cheers of his friends nearby. I watched him “walk it off” and saw his color worsen. I knew before he decked that his heart was saying goodbye. He staggered, crumpled to one knee. Like a big game animal, gut shot, his eyes were wide, terrified. Then blank. I was at his side before his head hit the grass, rolling him first to his left side, hoping that it was respiratory and not cardiac. Nope. Agonal breathing, at a rate of five breaths per minute, then three. No carotid pulse. Open airway, note the purple-blue mottled skin, the grey forehead and the sweat beading, not from running, but from something far worse.
My med kit was in my car, CPR mask included. No time for that. Breathe. Chest compressions. Delegate breathing to another responder. Focus on powerful compressions. Produce a radial pulse. Yes. Don’t stop for the sound and feel of crepitus, of ribs and sternum fracturing beneath palms. Rock from the hips, use the fulcrum, reach for the heart and don’t let go. ACLS arrives, monitor hooked up, V-fib. Oxygen wide open. Clear. Shock. Then another. Then another. Chaotic rhythm, disorganized electrical activity halted. Reset. Houston, we have a sinus rhythm. It wasn’t normal, it was bradycardic and hideous, but it was back. Backboard, straps, Load and Go. I picked up his fallen sunglasses, wrapped the cord of his headphones and iPod together, tucked them between his legs on the gurney before shutting the ambulance doors. These things often don’t end well, but I could have sworn he opened his eyes.
It had to be my wishful thinking. I looked around- did he have a family? A wife? Who knew his name? Who should I call to be there at the ER with him? Who would need a ride, support, silent understanding when the bad news came, as it generally does, in these cases?
He was there alone, it turned out. His name was George Rimiller, Jr.
The speed, efficiency and intensity of the first responders on that day made the difference for a man whose heart had had enough. We gave oxygen from our own lungs when he couldn’t draw a breath, we became his heartbeat, his circulating pump, when his came to a full-stop. The outcome was improbable, extremely unlikely. I’ve performed CPR (too) many times, but this is the only time that fate gave the person a life-extension.
I stood in the ICU the following day, and hugged a dead man who had come back to life. He lived, he fought back, he worked his way through months of therapies and we ran his first comeback race together. And the next.
That following summer, in his honor, I ran every single race in the Flint Hills road series and in the Northern Trails series for Running Club North, the running club he held so dear. I ran my own one-mile time trial and let my heart and lungs catch on fire. I ran for George, I ran for me. I ran for all those who will never come back, never come home to themselves in this life or the next. I ran for the days when I’d given up, stopped living. I ran for the times when the Dark shut me down so hard that I didn’t want to live. I ran because I can.
There are days when I run until my soul catches fire. There are days when the memories roll like waves. Today was one of those. I sprawled on the deck, alveoli screaming to blow off enough carbon dioxide to make the pain stop, and I remembered.
There is only one life you can save, in the end.
And that? Is your own.