Terry Miller essays

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Breathe…30 compressions, two breaths.

Breathe…30 compressions, two breaths.

I gazed at the blue, lifeless child draped over a boulder by the river’s shore, sunlight sparkling through his wet golden hair.

Breathe…he looked like a fallen angel from an Italian painting, arms outstretched, back arched on the rock, peaceful in death.

Breathe…I began compressions on his small, cold chest. Landmark, palms interlocked, wilderness responder and nursing clinicals came flooding back from distant memories.

Breathe…I knew at that moment I would beat his heart, breathe for this stranger child. In only a matter of seconds, l loved this child as my own. Unknowingly, my little girls giggled and played with daddy in the hot springs down the road, waiting for mommy to finish her kayak run on the Salmon River.

Breathe…The stillness and blueness of his skin shocked me. Periwinkle blue. Such a bright color for this darkest moment in life.

Lungs gurgled; bile and blood ran from his little nose and mouth.

How could time pass so quickly and so slowly at the same time?

My compressions pushed guttural sounds from the flooded lungs of his small chest. The child was dead in my arms.

A man’s quiet voice interrupted the primitive lifesaving dance that I fell effortlessly into. “That sound, is it a good sign?” Who was this man hovering close, but distant at the same time?

“No” I replied in a commanding voice to the hovering stranger.

The man looked away, unsure, unable. The steep rocky canyon walls enclosed us in this horror. Then, I realized, this was the father of the drowned child. Instantly, I was ashamed I had responded so strongly, but until this point, all I cared about was the rhythmic pushing on the child’s chest and his periwinkle blue skin. The father told me the child’s name was Michael and he was 9. In the midst of the chaos, breathing and compressing, Michael’s father got down on his knees, calmly placed his hand on Michael’s forehead and started quietly praying for the life of his son.

Breathe…one, and two, and three, and four, and five, and…I was exhausted. I yelled to my friend Kelly, “I need relief, after the next set of compressions, landmark, and begin compressing to a count of 30.”

She jumped in. Her small delicate hands that only 48 hours ago were holding the hands of her new husband Damon, as he placed a wedding ring on her finger beneath the jagged splendor of the Sawtooth Mountains. Our kayak trip was planned in celebration of their marriage and years of working together for the Colorado Outward Bound School.

…27, and 28, and 29, and 30…Breathe. The little chest puffed up and down, accepting air into his lungs, but no pulse. In a daze, my mind drifted to his small sweet face and I saw my daughter. Same golden hair color, upturned nose and faint summer freckles. They looked remarkably alike. Perhaps it was the intensity of the scene, but in that moment a blanket of despair smothered me. I knew I would stay there, compressing his heart until someone dragged me away.

Michael’s father scrambled up the canyon slope to get word on the status of an ambulance and I realized this little boy was dying…without his parents near. Who was I to witness this child’s death? A stranger. What if this were my child? Would there be someone to love them if I were not there? To hold their hand in the last moments of life? More despair.

A few rocks bounced past me, dislodged from the canyon, as the first of the emergency service personnel slid down the scree-filled slope. Finally, relief, someone to take over this macabre scene. Breathe…one and two and three and four and five… I was about to begin the next set of compressions when a faint breath and quivery groan escaped Michael’s lips. We froze and waited. Seconds later, another breath, more of a gasp this time. Michael was fighting to breathe himself back into this world. More deep guttural moans. He was not responsive, his pupils remained fixed, but he was breathing on his own. His pulse was weak, but palpable.

More emergency personnel arrived. Rescuers were competent, but stumbling over each other in their zeal to help. Once we finally hauled Michael out of the canyon, I collapsed in a heap beside the ambulance. The highway was closed, emergency vehicles strewn along the roadside. I noticed Michael’s father still and remote, staring at a rocky cliff. I thought about how he had untangled his son from beneath the pinned raft and carried his unconscious body to shore—an unbelievable feat in fast moving water. He walked slowly toward me, placed his hands on my shoulders and said quietly, “Thank you for saving my son.”

In a daze, I started walking. I wasn’t sure where I was going. Word spread of the accident on the river. A white van pulled up beside me. Two raft guides asked if I want a ride back to my family, anxiously waiting at the guide’s ranch a few miles down the road. I can’t remember the drive. I can’t remember their questions. I only remember tumbling out of the vehicle into my husband’s waiting arms and crying. I remember my little girls running around the corner of the guide house, laughing, all fresh-faced and rosy, filled with life, excited to see me. That is what I remember. At home I couldn’t sleep. Not knowing Michael’s outcome was difficult.

Days later, the phone rang. It was the father. He told me they had kept Michael in a hypothermic induced coma and brought him back slowly. He had collapsed and infected lungs and responded to his name.

Several weeks later another phone call. The physician in charge of Michael’s care. He noted the miracle of CPR. After three weeks in the hospital, Michael was going home and they expected a full recovery. The doctor went on to explain the lung infection, alveoli, cold-water immersion and the importance of CPR, but I stopped listening. All I could think about was a little boy, unable to breathe. I thought about love, Damon’s and Kelly’s, and that of a father and son. I thought about the fragility and resilience of life, and how those moments on the banks of the Salmon River changed me forever.

About the Author

Terry Miller

Terry Miller lives with her two sassy little girls, two black labs and a fabulous husband. A Canadian, and former outdoor educator for Outward Bound Mexico and Alaska. On any given day you will find her chasing little girls, kayaking local rivers, dreaming of Grand Canyon permits, or dispersing lactation information and support to mamas and their babes.

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