Trapped in a tree well near Squamish for seven hours, her heart no longer beating, 24-year-old Christine Newman of Calgary faced extraordinarily long odds of survival even after her friends recovered her from the well.
Unconscious and in extreme hypothermia, deep in Garibaldi Park, it would take hours for search and rescue crews to transport her to a hospital. The amount of CPR required would be a record in North America. And the specialized treatment for accidental hypothermia is uncommon in Canada.
Newman was found on April 1. Today, Newman is safe in hospital, communicating and expected to make a full recovery.
It’s thanks to an extraordinary chain of responses by search and rescue officials, ambulance crews, doctors at Vancouver General Hospital – and one doctor who was able to put all the pieces together.
“I can’t emphasize the way this turned out was every single step worked out absolutely perfectly,” said Squamish Search and Rescue manager John Howe.
Howe, who admits most CPR cases in the wilderness aren’t successful, said the first stroke of good luck was that Newman’s six friends – who only discovered her because they found her backpack near the tree well – knew CPR themselves. Finding her at 9 a.m., seven hours after she first went missing, they started performing on her, rotating every five minutes without causing any bruises or broken ribs until search and rescue crews arrived.
They wouldn’t have known how long she was without a pulse. Anything more than 20 to 30 minutes, and Newman likely would have had irreversible brain damage. But Howe knew that the heart can continue to weakly beat in accidental hypothermia, but stop if suddenly aggravated. There was a chance cardiac arrest only occurred when her friends pulled her out. And because the body can withstand hours of CPR when cold, Newman could be kept alive during the long process of getting her to a hospital.
Howe knew this was a unique situation that would require a specialist well-trained in accidental hypothermia. Amazingly, a Squamish Search and Rescue volunteer was one of them.
“I called Doug, knew he could make this happen, and it went from there,” said Howe.
Doug is Dr. Doug Brown, a Emergency Physician at Royal Columbian Hospital. Five years earlier, at a conference in Switzerland, he heard a story from a doctor who was trapped under an icy creek for 80 minutes, but still able to breathe. Using an ECMO machine, which takes oxygen from outside the body to heat the patient’s blood and raise their body temperature, doctors were able to save him.
“I had been doing search and rescue for several years and had just finished medical school, and had no idea this was possible,” he said.
“I came back to VGH and said ‘you should see what they’re doing with hypothermia in Europe, could we do the same thing here?'”
Brown learned more and more about the procedure, wrote medical papers on the subject, educated doctors in the province. When he received Howe’s call, he realized the hypothetical case he spent years researching was happening.
“It brought together all the research work I had been advocating over the last several years, and I suddenly had to phone up each of the people I had given presentations to,” he said.
Brown knew there were only three ECMO machines in the province, the closest being at Vancouver General. With no air ambulance available in short order, BC Ambulance services originally told them to go to Squamish. Brown convinced them to let them fly the SAR helicopter to Vancouver, where they were able to get to the doctors who could perform the specialized operation.
All the while, CPR was being performed on Newman – four hours worth in total.
“As far as I know, this is the longest duration of CPR ever performed in North America for this condition, probably any condition, with a good outcome,” said Brown.
“When you get the pre-hospital care providers working together with the ambulance providers, working together with the hospital, you can do really magical things.”
– With files from John Daly and Jill Bennett