Days after Christine Newman was rescued after spending seven hours trapped in a tree well, the details of her survival are continuing to emerge, and continuing to amaze.
Suffering from cardiac arrest, the Calgary woman and SFU student was sent not to nearby Squamish General Hospital as originally intended, but Vancouver General, which had a specialized piece of equipment – the ECMO device – that was critical to warming her fast enough for vital signs to return.
Suffering from accidental hypothermia, she was tended to by Squamish Search and Rescue – and one of their volunteers was a leading expert on the subject.
But before she could get to the hospital, before she could be tended to by professional Search and Rescue staff, Newman had to be kept alive with CPR for over two hours. And having gone missing without anyone knowing, she also had to be found.
Which is where a group of six acquaintances come in. They were carpenters, RCMP officers, students. On the morning of April 1, they found Newman, rescued her from the tree well, gave her CPR for hours, and created a landing spot for a helicopter to take her to hospital.
Today, as Newman recovers in hospital, her parents John and Ernestine Newman are calling them heroes.
“They performed a marathon,” said John.
“If I had six gold medals to give out, these would be the people who deserve six gold medals. They ran the marathon, and they won.”
“And the result of this is a 24-year-old girl named Christine Newman is going to be alive and walking and living.”
The Elfin Lakes shelter is a rudimentary cabin 14 kilometres from any parking that is the starting point for many who attempt a multi-day hike (or traverse) in the mountainous Garibaldi Provincial park.
On the night of March 31, Newman, a 24-year-old SFU student and skeleton competitor, was in the cabin with about 20 other people. She didn’t come with any friends.
“She was friendly, introduced herself to everyone,” said Eric Urban, a man from Cochane, Alberta planning on starting the Garibaldi Neve traverse with five others the next day. They hadn’t originally planned on this itinerary – but bad weather in the days before made them change their plans.
The next morning, having breakfast as they prepared for the hike, they realized Newman was no longer there. Someone told them they heard her leave during the night.
But while they found it a little strange, they only found one well-beaten track outside the cabin, which headed back towards the parking lot. They started on their hike, some skiing, some snowshoeing.
They didn’t know that, according to her parents, Christine was trying to use the outhouse a short distance away, but became lost and disoriented in the dark. Crossing through the forest, she fell five feet into a tree well – which is the area of loose snow around the trunk of a tree enveloped by deeper, harder snow.
Beginning on their journey just a couple kilometres from the cabin, a skiier in Urban’s group literally stumbled across a backpack. Bright and distinctive, they quickly realized it could be Newman’s.
Here, more strokes of luck. The ski tracks next to Newman’s backpack came from the adjacent forest, which meant that if she dropped the backpack anywhere else, it likely wouldn’t have been found. And if Urban or one of the other snowshoers had been in front, they would’ve already turned back; the snow was too loose for the entire group to continue along that path.
But Urban was at the back, 1800 metres behind. He heard the group leaders’ emergency whistle, and quickly went back to the ranger station near the cabin, where there was cellphone reception. By the time he returned to the group, Newman had been found – the group noticed the top of her head popping out of the snow a few metres from the trail. While they had pulled Newman out from the well, there was now a new challenge.
“When they found her, she was giving signs of life, breathing or moaning,” said Urban. “When freeing her from the snow, those signs disappeared.”
Newman suffered cardiac arrest while getting out of the well.
“For somebody who is exposed to cold like that but is still breathing air, the science is quite interesting,” said Dr. Doug Brown, an Emergency Physician at Royal Columbian Hospital and Squamish Search and Rescue volunteer.
“As your body cools, everything starts slowing down and shutting down. Normally that would cause your organs to start to die, but because they’re cold, they don’t need as much oxygen. But the heart becomes very, very irritable, so the slightest bump or jostle or just a bit of bad luck can make it be in a bad rhythm and then stopped.”
It’s one of the unique aspects to accidental hypothermia, which Brown had researched for years. He had been called by Squamish Search and Rescue, and arrangements were being made to helicopter him in to rescue Newman.
Urban and his team didn’t know how long that would take. All they could do was try desperately to keep Newman alive – and wait.
“One thing we learned in standard first aid courses, is once you commit to CPR, you have to stick with it,” said Urban.
“Stopping was out of the question, we just had to keep going. We never had the feeling that it was never not worth it.”
On social media, the question of how Newman survived has partly become a question of faith. A question on the nature of miracles. A question which inevitably divides as much as it unites.
Many will see the amazing set of coincidences as just that.
Newman’s religious parents, who saw their daughter become more devout while in university, see more.
“Christine’s whole story here is more than just a rescue,” says John.
“There are so many things that shouldn’t have happened but did. The odds of each one of these little pieces of the puzzle that had to come together are so staggering, one just has to believe that she has something else on this earth to do.”
It’s highly unusual for anyone to be kept alive through CPR for more than one or two hours. According to Dr. Vinay Dhingra, the Critical Care Physician at Vancouver General Hospital, Newman was able to sustain life because her core body temperature was only 18 degrees Celsius, while the average body is typically 37 degrees.
“We didn’t know that,” said Urban. “We just knew once you start, you keep going.”
Three people were tasked with providing CPR. Two others were tasked with alternating on mouth-to-mouth. One person was tasked with providing body heat on Urban at all times, in addition to the blankets they put over her and heat packs they put under her armpits. Another, a retired paramedic, kept them on rhythm, making sure they were warm, hydrated and coordinated as they rotated positions.
“It’s very exhausting, even though we might deal with it professionally once in a while,” said Urban. “We took turns every few minutes, we didn’t look on the watch, as soon as someone noticed they were getting tired we switched.”
At one point they noticed she was having ventilation problems. Using a tube from one of their CamelBak water packs, they opened her airway.
The person in their group who worked as a search and rescue volunteer realized that the helicopter couldn’t land in four feet of snow. An area was cleared enough to allow a helicopter to land. After just over two hours, one did.
After nearly another hour giving CPR with the additional paramedics, the helicopter left. The group, wracked by trauma, stayed in the cabin for several days, getting periodic updates from the RCMP. Yesterday, they met Newman’s family.
“We spent the whole day together, had dinner,” said Urban. “It was the biggest relief to see the person we spent hours and hours trying to revive smiling.”
Urban, who the group designated to be their spokesperson, says all of them will stay in touch with Newman.
“She’s a beautiful person. I’m glad that the group of friends we were with at the time, that we found her. Anyone of us by him or herself would have been a terrible experience,” she said.
“Seeing her recovered, we’re all very happy.”
– With files from Jill Bennett, Pat Bell, and Julia Foy