Precious life brings out heroesArea News
-- River Falls Swim Club Interim Coach Gunnar Teigen knew he had “good athletes and great kids” on his team. What he didn’t know was how some were capable of heroism.
By: Phil Pfuehler , Pierce County Herald
River Falls Swim Club Interim Coach Gunnar Teigen knew he had “good athletes and great kids” on his team. What he didn’t know was how some were capable of heroism.
He saw plenty of heroic action Friday night, Sept. 21, at the high school swimming pool.
Three swim club members in particular came together as a lifesaving trio on behalf of 12-year-old Marissa Metzler of the town of Troy.
Marissa’s heart stopped beating in the pool lane as she finished a kickboard drill.
She was floating chest up, legs down, arms flailing. What happened in the next few minutes proved to be the difference between life and death.
“It was remarkable to see the confidence and calmness that everyone displayed,” Teigen said. “Even those who weren’t in the middle of it respected the space needed for the rescue. There was a total lack of panic, which was important because that meant no distractions.”
Three of Metzler’s swimmates, brothers Ben and Jon Heiniger, ages 15 and 14, and Becca Thomas, 15, along with Ben and Jon’s mother, Sonja Heiniger, a former physician assistant, formed the spontaneous team of rescuers.
The three teens had recent CPR training. Sonja was watching swim practice from the upper balcony.
She spotted Marissa thrashing in the water, yelled “get her” and raced downstairs to the pool.
Keeping Marissa’s head above water, her son Jon carried Marissa out and laid her on the pool deck. She was tipped to the side but no water came from her mouth.
Others from the pool gathered close. Teigen couldn’t get a pulse. Marissa had seizures from the oxygen cutoff.
“Marissa was lifeless. Her heart had stopped. I knew it was a sudden cardiac arrest. I didn’t even recognize her she looked so bad,” said Sonja. “Her lips were completely blue, her skin was colorless and her pupils were blown out and dilated.”
Sonja had the poolside emergency phone to call 911 but couldn’t get it to work. She handed the phone to Tiegen who punched in the prefix 99 before the 911 so the call for help would go through.
Fourteen-year-old Jon said they had to start CPR. He began chest compressions. Sonja bent over Marissa to do mouth-to-mouth breathing.
Ben, a natural observer, had noticed during swim club practices an AED (automated external defibrillator) stored in a nearby corridor glass cabinet.
As part of his recent CPR training, Ben knew how to use the portable device that diagnoses heart rhythms and delivers electric currents to re-establish normal heartbeats.
Ben ran from the pool, grabbed the AED, which briefly set off a school building alarm, and returned to the pool deck in seconds.
The battery-operated AED with two sticky pads was attached to Marissa’s chest.
It was used twice to deliver shocks to Marissa’s heart.
Meanwhile, Becca took over handling chest compressions from Jon. Sonja said Becca brought renewed energy that seemed to stimulate Marissa.
Between the AED shocks, the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compressions, Marissa began to come around though she still had no pulse.
“Her eyes were normal, she was stirring. She groaned and nodded when asked if she could hear us,” Sonja said. “Those were positive signs.”
River Falls Ambulance paramedics then arrived to take over. Before they left with Marissa, Sonja said they congratulated the swim club for a job well done.
Sonja, who gave up a medical career to home school Ben and Jon, said she reacted instinctively while trying to channel her professional skills.
“It’s been 10 years since I really used my medical experience,” she said. “Even then, I was in family practice and never had to deal with a cardiac arrest case.”
Sonja admitted she also channeled a higher power.
“When I was breathing for Marissa, I was kissing her forehead and praying out loud, calling out to Jesus. I didn’t care who heard me.”
At the same time Sonja was terrified because she knew that oxygen deprivation causes brain damage.
“The odds get worse the longer it takes to revive,” she said.
Sonja was overjoyed by the praise from River Falls EMTs.
“Marissa was conscious, and they said we did just what we were supposed to do,” she said.
Of course it wasn’t easy for the Heinigers to fall asleep that night. They live nine miles east of River Falls just off Hwy. 29 in the town of Martell.
“I drank two cups of chamomile tea to calm myself down,” Sonja said.
Jon admitted he was still in a “dream state” when he got home later that Friday night. He broke down explaining the dramatic episode to his father, Stephen.
Ben said he tried to second guess what the rescuers could have done better.
“I kept analyzing it and then finally stopped,” he said. “You don’t want to beat yourself up with all the ‘what ifs.’”
Almost a week after the incident, Jon was more settled: “I’m relieved now that I know Marissa will be OK. I hope she can get back into swimming. I know that’s what she wants.”
Ben added an analytical twist: “I’m grateful we did something that had an exponential effect. Because of this, Marissa will live on and have a family of her own someday.”
Sonja said her sons and Becca came together to resuscitate Marissa with the poise and skill of a “hospital Code Blue team.”
“That’s what it felt like,” she said. “I’m just very proud and thankful, not only for what Jon and Ben did, but for everybody who was there and did little things to help.
“No one had to be directed. Like a drill, everyone was organized and responsive.”
It so happened that in August, Sonja enrolled Ben and Jon for a four-hour evening class called Heartsaver-AED.
The class, taught be River Falls (Ambulance) EMS Director Jeff Rixmann, included instructions on when and how to use the AED device.
Ben promised his mom he would participate but was skeptical.
“I thought, seriously, when am I ever going to use this? -- It’s pointless,” he said. His mother said the message everyone learned is glaring: “Whether it’s family members, neighbors -- get your CPR training. Anybody can learn how to do this and then know what to do in an emergency.”
Marissa’s mom, Denise, called the local swim club rescuers “my heroes.”
She said her daughter had no prior health conditions and there was no history of family heart problems.
Marissa appears to have recovered from her brush with death without permanent brain or organ damage.
She was released from Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis after having an internal cardiac defibrillator implanted.
Almost like a pacemaker, the device will monitor and regulate Marissa’s heartbeat. The Hudson Middle School 7 th grader is expected to make a full recovery.
Denise said extensive testing has shown her daughter has Long QT syndrome, a rare heart condition.
This can trigger palpitations, fainting and sudden death due to ventricular fibrillation (arrhythmia).The later occurs in heart-attack patients.
Denise described Marissa as always being very healthy and active, saying, “ She lives for swimming and horses. That’s her life.”
Denise said Marissa is determined to return to the swimming pool. Doctors haven’t ruled out a swim comeback -- someday.
She has a Wednesday appointment with a cardiologist and may return to school later this week.
Denise believes it wasn’t just heroic people who saved her daughter.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” she said. “I truly believed this all happened for a reason and that God put everyone in place to do what they did to keep Marissa alive.”
Denise said she last took CPR training more than 12 years ago -- when she was pregnant with Marissa.
“It’s time for me to go back and get retrained,” she said.
Rixmann said there are more than 200 of the portable, life-saving AEDs now found around River Falls -- in schools, the public library, City Hall, some businesses and homes.
He said the local Heartsaver-AED classes are the result of a partnership between the River Falls Area Hospital’s Wellness Center and River Falls Ambulance. For more information, he said to call the Wellness Center at 715-307-6060.
Rixmann said those trained should strive to follow the example of the swim club rescuers: “I would stress that, No. 1, you have to stay calm no matter what the emergency situation is.”
Rixmann said a clear head means emotions are checked so rescuers stay focused and can perform vital procedures.
For anyone interested in obtaining an AED for their office, business or home, call Rixmann at 715-425-0370, Ext. 1.