‘Luckiest man alive’ owes it all to Cowichan Aquatic Centre lifeguards

“I’d been going five days a week since the first of January. I’d had no previous warning that I had heart trouble."

A Maple Bay man is grateful that lifeguards at the Cowichan Aquatic Centre are well-trained. The well-oiled team at the pool saved Tom Earl’s life.

On April 28, Earl and his partner, Dodie Skaife, were exercising in the pool.

They were up to the stage where they could do the aqua spin classes, which offer a great workout, according to Skaife.

Then disaster struck.

Earl went into cardiac arrest right in the middle of the session.

“I’d been going five days a week since the first of January, trying to get myself back in shape. I’d had no previous warning that I had heart trouble. Lots of people have tightness in their chests, dizziness, indigestion, things like that. I’d had none of those indicators,” he said.

Skaife was the first to realize something was wrong.

“I looked over and saw that Tom wasn’t ready to do the next set of exercises; I thought he was just resting but then I hollered out: ‘Tom, Tom are you okay?’ Then I realized he wasn’t. It was so quick: sploosh, sploosh and two lifeguards were in.”

She could only watch.

Getting Earl onto the deck was no small thing.

“He’s six-foot-two and 220 pounds; that’s a lot of guy to get out of the water. We were in the deep end, too. They couldn’t touch bottom. It must have been straight adrenalin. They had to tow him over top of another lane — we were in the second lane back — they had to get his body over to the edge of the pool and onto the deck. It amazes me. I can barely believe it when I think of it,” Skaife said.

The rescue crew’s training showed in how quickly they were able to do it: no time was needed for thinking. The team simply acted, she said.

Earl said that made a huge difference.

“You know the rule about the lack of oxygen to your brain; in four minutes you can start to have brain damage,” he said.

Skaife said Earl was “totally unresponsive at the start. There was no pulse. It was really scary stuff.”

He doesn’t remember a thing about what happened to him. He simply woke up in Cowichan District Hospital.

“The doctors told us that I had a cardiac arrest. My heart stopped. If they hadn’t got me started there on the edge of the pool, I wouldn’t be here talking to you,” he said.

“I was lucky. Every doctor I have seen, and I’ve seen quite a few in the last few weeks, has said to me: you’re the luckiest guy I know.”

But it wasn’t just luck, it was because there’s an efficient, well-trained team at the pool.

“Everyone knew their part, like a well-oiled machine. Of course when the paramedics showed up they did their part, too. It was just a chain of events that shows our community is well covered,” Skaife said.

Earl said he thinks it’s important to thank the team for their hard work because a lot of Valley people may not even know they are there to help in that way.

“They used both CPR and a defibrillator to get my heart started again. They cracked my sternum trying to get my heart restarted and the next day I ached from where they’d pulled me out of the water but I was glad to feel that pain,” he said.

Earl eventually went to Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria where he had heart surgery May 10.

“The cardiac team at Royal Jubilee put the cardiac arrest down to exercising with a 95 per cent blockage. Because of the lack of symptoms, the cardiologists all thought it was an electrical problem with my heart. They spent some time monitoring me to see if that was the case and eventually they decided to do an angiogram. It was then they found the blockages in my heart. They ended up doing three bypasses — they did two others at the same time as the big one,” he said.

Earl was fortunate the attack came when it did.

After class he was to go home to shovel dirt out of the back of his truck to repair the lawn while Skaife ran some errands.

“I’d already been unloading half of it the day before, but I never felt a thing. I could have been laying in the yard for hours without anyone knowing,” he said.

“I’m very grateful to our entire system but especially to the lifeguards because the doctors wouldn’t have been able to do anything for me had their initial response not been done properly.

“I was 36 years in the RCMP and I can’t remember more than one or two occasions in all those years when somebody came and thanked me. I think it’s important that these people be publicly recognized for what they did that day,” he said.

“I think the other message here is that we all should know CPR. I know that Dodie and I plan to renew ours. You could be out camping with your family and a similar thing could occur and it could be a long way for an ambulance to get to you,” he said.