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"Everything aligned" for a dramatic rescue in Squamish, BC

This year from February 22-24, the Canadian Red Cross and Heart and Stroke Foundation are partnering to host the first-ever national conference focused entirely on first aid and resuscitation, the Canadian Emergency Care Conference. This story is part of a series highlighting the importance of the science and knowledge of first aid and resuscitation.

A woman is found frozen in remote Squamish, British Columbia. The story of her rescue seems almost impossible, combining luck with a dedicated team’s refusal to give up.

Around 2 or 3AM, a 24 year-old woman left a cabin alone in Squamish. Hours later, a party of skiers found her backpack, and then they found her. The woman had fallen into a tree well, a sort of moat that can form around a tree during a snowfall, and can be difficult to impossible to escape from. She was frozen to the tree, but still alive.

Not an average party of skiers

The skiers who found the woman were surprisingly prepared for a moment like this; amongst them were an off-duty RCMP officer, a search and rescue worker, and a lifeguard. They immediately set to work chipping the woman free from the tree. She went into cardiac arrest once she had been freed, and the party began to perform CPR.

They couldn’t get a phone signal there, but could back at the cabin. So while some took turns performing CPR, others formed a chain so they could send messages back and fourth to the cabin.

At this point, they had been performing CPR for around two hours.

Paramedics arrive

Miles Randell is a paramedic, and has lots of experience working in Search and Rescue. He got the call that a young woman was in cardiac arrest. Because of the criteria involved, an early request for an air ambulance to transport the woman had been denied.

The paramedic team arrived and stepped up active rewarming efforts and continued CPR. They defibrillated the woman and administered epinephrine. The woman was in desperate need to get to a hospital.

Whistler Blackcomb has a helicopter that is used for skiing but can be reconfigured into a medevac. Since no air ambulance was available it was decided that they would use this helicopter to get the woman to hospital – reconfiguring the helicopter into a medevac and refuelling would take one hour. Whistler Blackcomb also sent a team of Ski Patrollers to the scene who were all Search and Rescue team members.

While guidelines suggest three defibrillations, the responders defibrillated “a little more than that” Miles says. CPR had been ongoing for around three hours. 

“Everything aligned”

Because the woman went into cardiac arrest after suffering from severe hypothermia her chances of survival were higher.

Dr. Doug Brown is an emergency physician in British Columbia. He had been researching this exact situation and how using something called an ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) machine could save the woman. This machine oxygenates and removes harmful byproducts from blood, while also rewarming blood. There are five sites in BC that deliver ECMO, and the closest was at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH).

The helicopter arrived, reconfigured and ready to take the team to Vancouver. At this point, CPR had been performed for around four hours.

The ECMO procedure was successful, warming her core temperature from 17 ° to 37 °. The woman regained her pulse and consciousness.  She had survived with just some minimal scars from being chipped from the ice and the procedure.

“Everything aligned,” Miles stressed. The skiing party who first discovered her knew first aid and refused to give up on her, the helicopter was able to be reconfigured, and hypothermia research on this exact situation was being conducted nearby with an ECMO machine available.  

Not every story is this dramatic, but cold-related emergencies, like hypothermia, can happen to anyone. Knowing the signs of cold-related emergencies and first aid knowledge, can help save a life, like this woman’s. 

Miles Randell will be sharing more about this intense rescue at the Canadian Emergency Care Conference. Learn more about the conference and how to register online
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