Brain cells begin dying a minute after you stop breathing.
Serious brain damage can occur after only three.
But when a 65-year-old man suddenly turned pale and stopped breathing last Saturday at a Dillon restaurant, Diego Andraca needed only a moment to respond.
He’d trained for the moment for years, but it was his first time to put that training into practice.
“I’d just gotten off my bicycle and walked into my shift,” Andraca said. “I was talking to a server, and I heard a commotion. I turned around and saw a guy at a table who looked like he was choking. Then I noticed he wasn’t conscious. I could tell he wasn’t breathing.”
For the last six years, Andraca, a 21-year-old from Silverthorne, has worked summers as a lifeguard at the local recreation center. But in all those years, and despite countless hours of training, he’s never had to perform CPR on a drowning victim.
Ironically, the first time he had to use his life-saving skills was while working at his second job as a bartender at Ruby Tuesday.
At first a local couple tried to help. The woman was a nurse, but for some reason she froze up. That’s when Andraca rushed over to help.
“I gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” he said. “He had no breath. He had no pulse. In six years working as a lifeguard I’d never had to give mouth-to-mouth to a real person. I’d only worked on dummies.”
The experience was different.
“There was no time to use a mouth barrier,” Andraca added. “His jaw locked up, and I had to hold it open. I’d never come across that in training. And I could feel breath coming up and out of his mouth after I’d started.”
Cynde Jackson was working as the general manager that afternoon. She remembered how emotional it was.
“He came in his biking gear,” she recalled. “He looked really healthy. Then three minutes later he was lying on the floor.
“His wife was just hysterical. A couple sitting at the bar did all they could to console her. Everyone on staff and in the restaurant really pulled together to help. And when Diego saw the situation he didn’t hesitate.”
A couple minutes after Andraca started performing CPR on the victim, Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue arrived and took over advanced life support, said Steve Lipsher, a spokesman for LDFR. Summit County Ambulance Service then took over.
It didn’t look good. One of the paramedics at the scene told Jackson he probably wouldn’t make it.
But thanks to Andraca providing him with a spark of life, and the quick response by LDFR and the ambulance service, he somehow came back. Before the end of the night, the victim had been flown by emergency helicopter to a Denver hospital.
“His wife called me Sunday morning,” Jackson said. “She wanted to thank everyone for taking care of her and her husband.”
She reported he was already recovering, and had been taken off a breathing machine. She also said what happened to him was kind of a mystery. He hadn’t choked on anything, as was initially believed. He also hadn’t had a heart attack or stroke.
“His heart just stalled,” Jackson said.
But it kicked back after Andraca’s actions.
“I was kind of in a state of shock afterwards,” Andraca said. “But I was proud of myself for being able to act without even thinking about it and especially in front of a restaurant full of people.
“It’s a nice feeling to know I helped someone else see tomorrow. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
It surely won’t be the last great thing he does.
Andraca graduated from Summit High School a few years ago. He’s not only a bartender and a seasonal lifeguard. This summer he started a driveway sealing company with his father and brother called Diamond Driveway Sealing. He’s also a full-time student at Colorado Mountain College. Once he completes his associate degree he plans to enroll in Colorado State University and major in sports medicine.