Five Hours in the Wasatch: Saving Amy
As the wind from the helicopter blew through the tall grass and lights flashed from the ambulance, Aly and I stood atop Grobbens Meadow, surrounded by the rugged Wasatch mountains, and tears poured from our eyes. We were feet away from our friend’s half-naked, lifeless body lying across the trail. She was unresponsive. The EMTs were trying to revive her. We were told to prepare ourselves. Aly hugged me and prayed. This was not how this day was supposed to end.
That morning, Amy set out to run the Washatch Front 100, with her boyfriend, Justin, as crew and Aly and me as pacers. It would be her fifth race of that distance or longer. She was appropriately trained, prepared, and ready to cover the distance. But, while we can pack drop bags, plan fueling and clothing, and create pace charts, there are some eventualities for which we are inevitably unprepared.
Three and a half hours after the race had started, a friend and I had just finished a morning run and we were regrouping with others for breakfast before heading to the race when Amy called Justin. “She’s not having fun,” he said. “She doesn’t feel well and she’s moving really slowly. She wants to quit.” I grabbed my phone and Aly and I called her. Amy was crying and breathing hard. She felt horrible. We told her the things we’d tell anyone in that position, the things we’ve always known to be true. “This is just a hard patch, be patient with yourself, eat, one foot at a time, it’ll get better, get to the aid station.” Amy sat on a rock and ate while we talked to her. Her spirits improved and her breathing slowed, so we ended the call and told her we'd call her back in a half hour.
Ten minutes later, as we made our way to breakfast, Amy called again. She was breathing really hard, she told us. Should could barely take ten steps at a time before she had to rest again. We sat at a table of experienced runners, tens of thousands of miles of running, racing, crewing, and pacing among us. We all said the same thing: "If you can only take 10 steps at a time, you take 10 more steps." Not one of us believed that was the wrong advice. "She'll get thought this," we told Justin. "It's just a bad patch." Calm once again, Amy ended the call. Aly and I started planning what we would need to do the first time we got to see Amy, and what she would need from us when we started pacing.
As we finished breakfast, Amy called again. "I'm going to drop," she said. We tried to talk her out of it, to encourage her, to convince her to keep going, but she was insistent. Within a few minutes, we were back at our condo when Amy called again. "I dropped," she said. "I called the number on my bib." We told her to rest, and we gathered up some clothes and supplies to take to her. The drive to the first aid station was going to be a minimum of 90 minutes and we were headed to a section of the course not typically accessible to crew, so we weren't sure what we would find.
The three of us piled into Justin's car and made our way into the mountains. The drive felt endless; we couldn't get there fast enough. As we got further down the highway, Amy called again. She was lightheaded, she was still having trouble breathing, and her fingers were numb. We told her we were getting to her as fast as we could, but that the drive was long. We heard the faint sound of voices on the other end of the line, and then the call dropped. Now in silence, we continued to drive up the long, windy gravel road to where the aid station once was, following course markings that hadn't been removed yet.
Aly had the wherewithal to contact the moderator of the Facebook race page to notify volunteers of the problem to see if someone else could get to Amy sooner. It wasn't long before we received word back that the race director had reached Amy and that a helicopter had arrived to take her to the hospital.
Still making our way up the gravel road, we decided that since help had arrived and since we were so far from the hospital, we would turn around in the hopes of arriving at the hospital soon after the helicopter. Just as we turned around, we saw an ambulance racing up the road. "I'm following that ambulance!:"Justin said, and we turned around again.
We reached a gate at the end of the road where it turned into double track jeep road. As the EMTs debated how to best get down the road, Aly and I grabbed our hydration packs and took off running uphill with Justin behind us. Aly and I ran as fast as we could. Altitude didn't matter. Terrain didn't matter. We just had to get to Amy. After about a mile to a mile and half of running, we reached the top of the road where it intersects with single track. We saw a helicopter, the ambulance, a sheriff's vehicle, and several ATVs. We ran down the single track to find Amy lying on the ground and EMTs trying to revive her. "Justin can't see this," Aly said. She was right. It was too much. I ran back up the trail and yelled to two ATV drivers who had stopped to help. "Her boyfriend is on his way up here. Stop him. He can't come down." They nodded. They understood.
Aly and I stood there, helpless. "Come on, Amy. You've got this. You can do this," we'd yell. Tears poured from our eyes. "There's no pulse," I heard one EMT say. "It's faint," another one said. The next minute felt like an eternity. "Pulse is 64, O sat 90. Let's move her." Aly and I moved out of the way, bushwhacking up the mountain to the road.
We stood on either side of Justin, holding back our tears. The wind from the helicopter blew across the mountain and we watched from the distance as they carried Amy up the trail on a board and moved her to the back of a Jeep and then to the helicopter. "She's going to be okay," I said. "She has to be." We asked the sheriff which hospital they'd be taking her to, and I called friends to have them communicate the information to Amy's parents who, fortunately, were in town for the race.
As they moved Amy to the helicopter, Aly and I talked to the race sweeps who had found her on the trail and had given her chest compressions for 30 minutes. "Thank you," I said. "Thank you for saving out friend." The sweep hugged me. "Anything for one of us," she replied.
Knowing that we were at least 90 minutes from the hospital, we hitched rides from the ATV drivers to get back to our vehicle faster. As we made our way down the rocky, double track jeep road, I looked at the beautiful mountains that surrounded us, both incredibly thankful that Amy was alive and terrified that she wouldn't live. This was not how this day was supposed to end.
By the time we reached the ICU at the hospital, Amy was conscious and the doctors were preparing to remove her breathing tube. Although she had lost her short-term memory, the doctors said it was surprising how little she had lost cognitively and how well she was doing so quickly; it was "the best case scenario," they told us. The hours that followed were long, overwhelming, and exhausting; I can't fathom what they were like for Amy, Justin, and Amy's parents.
Late into the evening, as Aly and I finally left the hospital, I stepped off the elevator and everything hit me. Standing in the lobby of the hospital, I couldn't breathe. I couldn't hold it in any longer. I started crying. "I did this to her," I said. "I told her there was nothing wrong. I told her to keep going." Aly wrapped her arms around me: "We all did, Des. We had no way of knowing." Aly was right, of course, but the ordeal gave me pause and caused me to question everything I've ever done as crew or pacer.
Amy began to improve with each day that followed. After tests were run, we learned that she has a genetic, progressive heart condition, arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC). She underwent surgery and had a pacemaker implanted. Her life will be forever changed, but Amy embodies strength and resiliance.
It's taken a long time for all of us who were there that day to process what we saw and what we felt. The experience was an eye-opening reminder of the kinds of things that can happen in the wilderness -- things that are completely unexpected -- and how we need to be prepared for these eventualities. Had the sweeps not known CPR, Amy might not be here today. It was an eye-opening reminder that sometimes a racing heart and feeling ill are part of the 100-mile experience, but sometimes there's truly something wrong, and it's important to make an informed assessment. Most importantly, it was a stark reminder of the fragility of life, how precious every moment is, and how incredibly fortunate we are to live these moments — the beautiful, the sad, the scary, the emotional, the mundane, those that shake you to the very core — all of them — because they are all we get.