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Backcountry rescue saves stroke victim

Responders combat minus 55 degree wind chill

A 64-year-old man survived a life-threatening stroke this past weekend due in part to the quick response and acts of courage by Crested Butte Search and Rescue volunteers and local Emergency Medical Service professionals.



During the early morning hours of Friday, December 28, Gunnison 911 dispatch received a call reporting an older man was experiencing a stroke near Dead Man’s Gulch south of Crested Butte. The man was staying with his wife in a cabin approximately six miles up valley from the winter trailhead located at the Cement Creek campground, according to EMS coordinator Ross Orton.
Local police, Crested Butte Search and Rescue and Emergency Medical Services responded to the call. Crested Butte Search and Rescue volunteers Ric Ems and Charley Dumas, both residents of Crested Butte South, were the first on the scene after they decided to head straight to the trailhead rather than meeting at search and rescue’s equipment cache in town.
Crested Butte Emergency Medical Technicians Andrew Gitin, Richard Kalasky, and Val Nuemann also responded immediately. 
With the search and rescue’s snowmobiles and Orion sled i.e. covered toboggan for transporting patients buried in snow in Crested Butte almost 15 minutes away, the crew realized that they wouldn’t have time to retrieve it.
That’s when Ems and Dumas jumped on a single snowmobile together and headed up the drainage, despite the dangerously cold weather with temperatures hitting minus 20 degrees and wind chills near minus 55 degrees.
“We were prepared to go out in the worst weather,” Dumas says.
Dumas says the decision to travel in such extreme circumstances was made after all of the first responders agreed they had a very short window to transport the victim to the hospital for treatment.
“Time was of the essence,” Dumas says.
According to Orton, when someone experiences a stroke they can be treated with a drug used to dissolve clots, but the drug must be administered within three hours of the stroke. Orton says the rescuers had determined that almost 25 minutes had already lapsed by the time everyone met at the trailhead.
“We had a very black and white window of opportunity,” Orton says. “…and we realized we were pushing the three hour window.”
When Ems and Dumas arrived at the cabin they found the victim was conscious but had experienced severe complications from the stroke. Ems and Dumas dressed the patient for the severe weather and traveled back to the trailhead.
“They basically bundled the patient with blankets and sandwiched him between the two of them, and rode back to the trailhead,” Orton explains.
Dumas says the couple did have a snowmobile and sled, but due to the cold weather it was not operational. Several search and rescue volunteers returned to the cabin to retrieve the victim’s wife.    
After returning to the trailhead, the patient was transported via ambulance to the Gunnison Valley Hospital where he was administered the drug tPA (tissue plasminogen activator) with less than 13 minutes to spare. Orton says the patient’s health had already started improving by the time he was transported via helicopter to Swedish Hospital in Denver.
Stroke is the third leading cause of death and the leading cause of adult disability in the United States.
Orton says the Crested Butte Search and Rescue receives about a dozen different calls a year, and this call had a high level of danger because of the extreme cold.
“Any exposed flesh would freeze, so it made (the call) special,” Orton says. “I was really impressed with search and rescue and everyone involved.”
Orton says the outcome could have been much different if it wasn’t for Ems and Dumas’ quick response. “It definitely would have been bad if we missed the three-hour window – the outcome would likely have been poor,” Orton adds.
Orton says the Crested Butte EMS also attended to a heart attack victim on Sunday, December 30. Orton says a 58-year-old male, who started to experience symptoms of a heart attack at the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort, was in transport to the Gunnison Valley Hospital when he went into full cardiac arrest.
Paramedics Chris Evans, Richard Kalasky and Alister Bland administered treatment including shocking the patient with a defliberator and was able to revive the patient. Orton says the incident was the first time in the fire district’s history that an EMS crew was able to save a patient that was in full cardiac arrest.
“I am really proud of the crew,” Orton says. “We have a highly trained group of individuals.”
Registered nurse Chris Evans, who was one of paramedics on the call, says although it is her job to help those who are injured or sick, she still is moved by moments similar to that in the ambulance.  
“I was almost giddy (to see him wakeup), that’s why we do this,” Evans says. “It’s very rare for a cardiac patient to come back, so it felt very good and it’s why I volunteer.”
Orton says the fire district receives on average 500 to 600 EMS calls per year. 

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