The Gift of Life

Have you ever witnessed an event so emotionally charged that you were instantly awakened to the realization that each day is a gift? This past weekend I had an experience that has shaken me from complacency. I feel compelled to share this incredible story with you.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

It was my second trip to the Wausau Whitewater Park and no sooner did I enter the river that I capsized and was swimming down the rapids. This is nothing new for me. At least I’m getting used to swimming. As I swiftly floated past more experienced kayakers, they graciously lent a hand by securing my boat and assisting me safely to the bank. One of these individuals was Rick, a charismatic veteran of the park who gave me a reassuring, “It’s OK, just have fun smile,” as he pushed my boat to the still water eddy.  I remembered Rick from my previous visit as one of the top finishers in the freestyle championship competition. His confidence, skill and athleticism in a white-water kayak was impressive, but perhaps even more memorable was his lean muscular physique, uncharacteristic for a man at any age, but even more so for a man in his mid-fifties.

Rick, looking healthy and fit

After retrieving my boat and safely leaving the water, my paddling partner Chris and I began our walk up the bank for another river run when we heard a commotion. Yells and shouts of urgency, along with the running of bodies, all ominously hinted of something terribly wrong and we hurriedly made our way to the source. My inner fears were confirmed when I saw a prostrate body laying spread on the rocks on the opposite bank of the turbulent river. The red tinted rocks emphasized the unnatural color of the man’s skin, which was a deathly purple hue, a combination of blue from hypoxia and suntanned skin. A small, blonde-haired women was emphatically pumping the man’s chest, her petite frame mismatched compared with the muscular body she straddled. Scrutinizing the scene more closely I realized the man was Rick!  More and more people gathered. Several were crossing the water to assist with CPR and I momentarily considered adding to this effort, but painfully realized I lacked confidence in my CPR skills. The minutes seemed like hours as I watched Rick intently for any sign of movement or any indication from the responders of life.

“Move damn it, fight.”

 My vision began to blur with tears as I recollected how survival rates with good neurological outcome decreased as time passed, especially without defibrillation. After 10 minutes my optimism for Rick’s survival faded substantially. The petite women providing CPR had been yelling for an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) since the onset. A police officer arrived and hurriedly brought the device down to the river. The crossing of the river slowed everything. On pins and needles, I watched as a kayaker navigated the rapid stream with the potentially lifesaving machine on his boat. An ambulance arrived, but on the wrong side of the river. More time elapsed before the EMTs could take over as they had to navigate to the nearly inaccessible point on the far bank. With the AED in place, the blonde woman cleared bystanders from the body and administered the first shock….nothing. Back to CPR.

Although impossible to estimate the elapsed time, what seemed like hours was actually 20 minutes since initiation of CPR. I watched Rick get hit with the second shock with no response. It was then that I became conscious of the tears running down my face; I was absolutely certain of Rick’s demise. I couldn’t watch any longer and told Chris I was leaving.

University of Washington - School of Medicine

As Chris and I walked away from the scene, it was difficult to remember exactly all I was processing. I knew Rick had a family, and although I didn’t know him personally, it certainly felt like I had lost a close friend. I inherently knew we were cut from the same cloth: chasing adventure, living for the moment, enjoying the outdoors.  We had lost one of our own and I had painfully witnessed it unfold from the beginning. I was devastated. As I continued to cry, I couldn’t help but empathize with the blonde-haired woman and the other CPR administrators, to work so hard and lose the most important battle they may ever face.  I had no intention of drinking on this trip, but Chris and I immediately cracked a beer. I was desperate to dull the all-too-vivid scene of Rick’s body and attempted rescue from repeating in my head. Chris poured a few swallows of PBR on the lawn with watery eyes, “to Rick.” In the distance we heard a women’s plaintive scream.  I knew what it meant…they had pronounced Rick dead. Chris disagreed with my interpretation, “I don’t think that was a cry of despair, Rick’s one tough dude. I’m going back there.” I felt bad for Chris and his naive optimism. I knew that after 30 minutes there was no hope. However, I figured Chris could use the companionship when the final realization hit, so I accompanied him.

Approaching the scene I was grateful my vision was obstructed from the body as a large crowd had gathered consisting of park users, folks from the nearby farmers market, and numerous emergency responders. 

It was then that this story took an unbelievable turn:

I overheard someone in the crowd murmur “He’s breathing,” and learned that not only was Rick alive but he sat up for a short time when he came out of it!  I was a crying machine at this point and felt as though someone pulled a heavy weight off my chest. Instantly, the despair, sadness and devastation that choked my soul was replaced with elation, gratitude, optimism, beauty, life and promise, all blending together in a beautiful moment that I couldn’t have fathomed a minute before.

Rick left on a gurney for the ambulance. As Chris and I walked back to get our kayaks, I knew that I would never look at the world quite the same.

In the aftermath, what stands out to me the most was the response to Rick’s emergency. Carrie Butt was the blonde lady I witnessed initiate CPR and I needed to thank her and hug her after the incident. We spoke at great length and she shared how things unfolded for her.  Carrie and her daughter, Ahna were on the far bank selling equipment for their business, Divepoint Scuba Paddle and Adventure Center, when Ahna noticed Rick upside down in his boat not attempting to right himself. Ahna alerted her mom to this and they sprang into action. Nearby kayakers pulled Rick from the water and brought him to shore where they determined he wasn’t breathing and was without a pulse.  Carrie and Ahna are ski instructors at nearby Rib Mountain and have extensive training in emergency situations. Years of repetitive training triggered an almost automatic response to the situation. Ahna immediately called 911 while Carrie jumped into the rapid river. Not having the strength to swim across on her own, she grabbed a kayaker’s boat and screamed at him to get her quickly across.

Chris Keller at the rapid point where Carrie jumped in the water to swim across

Carrie shared with me what rushed through her mind as she began CPR. “His skin was purple, a sickening purple, his hands were white and his pupils were pinpoints. I was certain he was dead”. I thought, “Oh God, this is going to suck, but dammit I’m going to try anyway.”  Her training took over from there as Ahna and a couple of other kayakers competent in CPR coordinated the initial resuscitation effort. Firefighters and paramedics from the Wausau Fire Department arrived and took over the rescue effort administering epinephrine and continued shocks with the AED. After 30 minutes of CPR, along with the drugs administered and the sixth shock from the AED, Rick was revived. Ahna relayed that she was on Rick’s arm, holding his body down during CPR and was literally, by a single arm, lifted from the ground as a confused Rick awoke, as if from a horrible nap.

The cause of Rick’s episode is a mystery. He was not injured in any way as a result of kayaking at the park and is the epitome of perfect physical condition. Follow up tests revealed no indication of stroke or heart damage which is a stark reminder that this could happen to anyone at any time anywhere.  It appears that Rick either passed out or his heart stopped for no apparent reason when he capsized.

What is certain, is that without the quick response of those nearby, Rick would be dead. It is a testament to their response, and the continuous administration of effective CPR, that Rick is alive. The day after this event, Rick was awake, mobile and requesting a return to the whitewater park.

Much of my motivation for sharing my perspective of this near tragedy is to give personal thanks to all those responsible for a happy ending:

Carrie and Ahna Butt, you are my heroes. For the rest of your days, I hope you fully understand the gift your quick action gave Rick, his family, and friends. Not only did you breathe life back into Rick, but also to myself, a mere spectator.

Carrie and Ahna

The kayakers who pulled Rick from his boat and worked together to quickly get him to shore; the bystanders who jumped into the fray and helped administer CPR and transport equipment and personnel across the rapids; the Wausau Police, Fire and EMS; and everyone else that assisted and kept cool heads in this emergency. You are heroes.

I’m certain that everyone who witnessed this event will at least carry some piece of it with them forever. Personally, I was immediately left with an overwhelming desire to give, a feeling that I hope will never leave me.  I lacked the confidence in my CPR to cross the stream and assist those more knowledgeable. This is after being certified in CPR numerous times along with a week of dedicated curriculum in college. However, over the last 10 years I have neglected any emergency training. I spend a significant amount of time in remote areas having adventures with my family and friends. Had this same thing happened to one of them, and I was the only person available to respond, I hold no illusion of the tragedy that would have resulted. I need CPR, emergency skills, and the confidence to take control of a situation. If you are reading this, please join me and become CPR competent and certified. IT SAVES LIVES!!!  

I leave you with the following one minute video, a clever introduction to CPR and a useful way to keep the chest compression rhythm.


I contemplated reaching out to Rick on several occasions when writing this article, but decided against it. I didn’t want to add to the psychological stress that I assumed may accompany dying and coming back to life. However, after completing this post, I really felt like it needed some input from Rick, even if it was in the form of a picture. I sent him a message along with a rough draft of the post and was very surprised when I immediately received a call from Rick. He was kind enough to praise the article and offer his blessings and we spent the good part of the morning talking like old friends. It turns out Rick is one hell of a nice guy and an interesting one to boot. Rick has single handily won over 8000 volleyball matches against 6 person teams and is also a motivational speaker and author (check out his book on Amazon). At this point, Rick is back 100%, with no broken ribs or any physiological damage of any sort! He is fully aware of how miraculous this outcome is, which is reflected by the gratitude and joy, that resonates from his every word. Additionally, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor as his remarks after his first time back in his kayak reveal: “AMAZING to be back out there! My chest was a little sore when I did cartwheels, splitwheels & loops. I’m not sure why.” 

Rick's Book


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