Locals pull together to save man’s life on river
Glenwood Post Independent
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Tom Hilleke has spent a lot of time kayaking and rafting rivers in his 31 years of life. He said that it’s been luck, that in all those years, he’s never had to actually use any of his cardiopulmonary resuscitation training in an real situation.
On July 10 his luck ran out.
“I’ve dealt with some pretty gnarly stuff on the river,” Hilleke said. “But just having life and death on the line was pretty extreme.”
Hilleke’s day on the river began with excitement. He and his coaching partner for the Junior Kayak League, 17-year-old Michael Palmer, were preparing for an evaluation day of the group on the river.
It was the first day of practice and they were all suited up and ready to float down stream from the Grizzly Creek put-in when they noticed a local commercial river raft pulling into the boat ramp ” a typical scene this time of year on the river.
“We were trying to get out of their way,” Hilleke said. “Nothing seemed like they were in distress immediately when they came in.”
But something was terribly wrong.
A lady jumped out of the raft and approached Hilleke asking for a cell phone.
Luckily, Hilleke had one and he handed it to her and she quickly dialed 911.
“We were dispatched for a party, a 56-year-old male, that was in cardiac arrest,” said Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Mike Piper.
Hilleke approached the raft to assess the situation. The raft’s guide already had the situation under control, but being part of the river community, Hilleke and Palmer knew they had to help.
“The sport we’re in, you’re playing with death,” Palmer said. “So you just have to be ready for stuff like that. You just have to be ready to go.”
According to Hilleke, Palmer took the group of kids from the kayak league up the boat ramp and away from the situation and returned to the boat to help.
When Hilleke got into the raft, the scene was grim.
“When I first looked at him, his skin color was gray, his eyes were wide open and there was no pulse and he wasn’t breathing,” Hilleke said. “At that point I really didn’t give him much of a chance.”
They removed the man from the raft to the boat ramp and began CPR.
Hilleke said that he and Palmer began trading off giving compressions while the raft guide, who wished not to comment for the story, delivered breaths until paramedics arrived.
Piper said the call came in at 4:58 p.m., an ambulance and a rescue unit were en route within one minute, and arrived on scene 10 minutes later.
But for Hilleke, it seemed like twice as long.
“It must have been 15 or 20 minutes until the paramedics got there,” Hilleke said.
Once paramedics arrived, they jumped into the ongoing CPR rotation, according to Hilleke, but he wasn’t about to give up, either.
“One thing I remember thinking is that it’s our obligation to continue until the paramedics arrive,” he said. “It seemed sort of in vain, but I thought about if it was my dad, or myself. How long would you want people to do it to yourself?”
Hilleke remembers the man being loaded into the ambulance and pulling away, lights on and sirens blaring.
The shock of the situation didn’t fade immediately, Hilleke and Palmer did only what they could think of, which was to get on the river with their group.
“We went kayaking,” Palmer said with an almost-forced grin. “It’s important to get on the water after something like that. You need to get back on the horse.”
The ambulance delivered the man to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs where he recovered. However, his current condition is still unknown.
And what exactly happened in the raft that day isn’t clear. Due to federal regulations, the man’s name and medical condition were not released by the hospital.
According to Piper, the fire department report states that the man fell out of the raft along the Shoshone stretch of the Colorado River.
However, he was conscious when he was retrieved from the river.
No traumatic event occurred while he was in the water is what was reported.
A “couple” of minutes after being in the raft again, Piper said, the man became “lethargic” and breathing became faint.
“We don’t believe that his condition was related to drowning,” Piper said. “The patient had a medical history of some sort.”
Piper was unable to disclose the specifics of his medical history.
But, he did say that if it weren’t for the raft guide, Hilleke and Palmer, the man probably would not be alive today.
“Bystanders performed very good CPR and the paramedics did their usual good job,” Piper said. “This guy wouldn’t be here without that, that’s what I think. It sounds like they did a heck of a job.”
Palmer and Hilleke were humble when talking about the incident.
Three days after the fact, Hilleke was still taken back by the experience.
“I couldn’t even believe, to have that intersection in someone else’s life, not even knowing them, that was pretty scary,” he said. “I’m so glad he made it. I’m so glad we didn’t stop, that’s for sure.”
They did what they had to, and had the training to do. That’s the way it is on the river.
“You have to do whatever you can to help someone out,” Palmer said.
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