Cardiac Arrest on the Ski Chairlift
Sudden Cardiac Arrest can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere – including the ski chairlift. 14-year-old Cassidy was skiing around Mammoth Mountain with her friends on New Year’s Eve when they loaded Chair #4. During that ride, the truly unexpected happened. Cassidy became unresponsive and dropped her ski poles – she had suffered Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA). Valerie Seitz, her mother, shares the story of how she suffered and survived a cardiac arrest on the slopes.
Note: Sudden Cardiac Arrest can happen to people of all ages, including children and teens. It is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate treatment with CPR and an Automated External Defibrillator.
Avive: According to her mother Valerie, Cassidy Seitz was practically born on Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort in California.
Valerie Seitz: Our family has a long history with Mammoth Mountain. My husband and I were engaged at the top of the Gondola in 2001. I skied the 2003-2004 season while pregnant with Cassidy, who was born in June of 2004. In 2004 Cassidy came along to enjoy the season from a cabin at Juniper Springs and I’d ski in to nurse her at feeding times and check in with the sitter. Cassidy has visited Mammoth annually. Her first experience on skis was with Mammoth Mountain Ski School on the Magic Carpet at Canyon Lodge.
Avive: And on New Year’s Eve in 2018, while visiting Mammoth Mountain during Christmas break, the Seitz family would learn firsthand the truth that Sudden Cardiac Arrest can happen anywhere, anytime to anyone, even the young and physically fit.
Valerie Seitz: Yes, so true. Until it happens to someone close to you it seems like something abstract and utterly impossible. Cassidy was 14 years old when she had SCA. She was a high-level competitive gymnast at the peak of her fitness and set to compete in the Spring of 2019. She was tracking at Level 8 (out of 10) and on track to achieve her goal and continue on to collegiate gymnasts. We’d been in Mammoth for nearly a week and being 14 and very familiar with the mountain, she was primarily skiing with her friend’s day in and day out which was fun and liberating for her and her friend group. The 31st of Dec 2018 was going to be our last ski day for the year and our 6th day on the mountain that week.
Cassidy had been waking up early chasing first up but on this day the kids were more relaxed about getting on the mountain. They went out around nine o’clock –Cassidy scanned her pass at chair 4, it’s called “roller coaster” at 10:27am. We estimate at approximately 2 minutes (or halfway) up the ride while on the chairlift, Cassidy went into cardiac arrest. She was with her best girlfriend also ago 14, another 14-year-old who she has gone to school with since Kindergarten, and his cousin age 15. Before loading Cassidy had told them she was going to go in after the run because she wasn’t ‘feeling well.’ Again, midway up Cassidy slumped over and her poles dropped below. Her friend Juliana said, “Cassidy, you’re scaring me!” but she was unresponsive. The two who sat on either side of her wrapped their arms and hands over her torso to keep her on the lift. The young man on the end put the safety bar down and they just held onto her while she remained unresponsive.
Avive: Being contained in a ski lift chair, 800 feet in the air. And for approximately four minutes, Cassidy’s quick thinking friends did the only thing they could do; attract as much attention to themselves as possible.
Valerie Seitz: As the chairlift approached the top, the kids began to shout, wave and flair their arms around like crazy to capture the urgent attention of the list operators – it worked, they saw the commotion and responded ideally. There happened to be a ski patroller there as well. The lift operators stopped the lift, approached the chair, and the ski patrol removed Cassidy from the lift. The patroller later recounted his initial thought was there were a bunch of silly teenagers goofing off, waving their hands for attention, but nevertheless, being the upmost professional they approached the chair as if it were a serious situation. And as soon as he removed a weightless Cassidy in his arms emergency protocols were set into motion beginning with seeking out a pulse and beginning to administer CPR.
Avive: Thanks to fast acting, lift operators, ski patrol, and a Los Angeles cardiologist who just happened to be skiing and noticed all the commotion, Cassidy was able to get the care she needed in a timely manner.
Valerie Seitz: Yes, Ski Patrol immediately started compressions and Cassidy had two rescue breaths. A fast-acting patroller went for the AED machine that just happened to be stationed at the top of that particular chair lift. They gave her one shock and it worked! At this point there were additional ski patrollers on scene. A physician noticed an emergency response and snowboarded over–turns out he was a Los Angeles based cardiologist based in Los Angeles– when he arrived he found a really stressed-out intense group of ski patrollers who had just done everything right! He stepped in and took over the code and was able to determine Cassidy had a pulse and made the decision to send her down the hill and get her to the ER. Dr. DeSilva rode down the mountain on back of a Ski Patrol snowmobile while the patrollers skied Cassidy down in one their rescue baskets. Dr DeSilva later shared with me that was one of the most harrowing rides he’s ever been on. He said the Patrollers were going so fast the skimobile couldn’t keep up, he was barely able to hang on to his helmet which wasn’t on his head and just held on as tightly as he could! The Patrollers with Cassidy arrived at the base of the mountain before the snowmobile, found the ambulance waiting and off Cassidy went urgently to Mammoth Hospital emergency room.
Avive: But let’s back up. All this had happened while Cassidy’s mother, Valerie was still at the hotel and Cassidy’s father was skiing. Valerie received a call from Cassidy’s friend who told her what had happened. Cassie has a history of fainting. So Valerie assumed it was something to do with that. She had no idea that it was a Sudden Cardiac Arrest.
Valerie Seitz: We were getting a late start that day- it was a lazy morning for us. My phone rang and it was Julianna. This was concerning because she was out skiing with Cassidy and the boys and she sounded very shook . She immediately informed me that Cassidy had passed out. I asked her where they were and she told me Cassidy was with Ski patrol so I assumed she was in good hands. I told her I ‘d call her back –I wanted to call my husband who as on the mountain skiing. I thought he would be able to collect Cassidy more easily than I could as I was still in the hotel room with my then 12-year-old daughter, Stella. At this point, I thought Cassidy had fainted or just passed out or was dehydrated or something minor. Cassidy fainted once when she was about five years old at gymnastics when her coach removed piece of skin from a blister on her palm commonly known in gymnastics as a ‘rip. “Rips’ in gymnastics are typical all of the kids get them from bars- they are rite of passage and strangely celebrated in the gym. As Cassidy’s coach was helping her by gently removing a flap of loose skin on her palm, Cassidy fainted. And a few years after that Cassidy fainted while leaving the doctor’s office after getting a steroid shot for strep. We thought she had a vasovagal condition so each time Cassidy went for a vaccination injection we considered her to be vasovagal prone and we’d be careful throughout and immediately following, making sure Cassidy was calm and ensure she’d have a period of rest after an injection. We’d make sure she was very calm. From what I was told at the time, those fainting instances were typical. but in hindsight it was a red light.
Avive: Cardiac arrest is the number one cause of death among student athletes in claims over 7,000 young lives every year. But you don’t know what you don’t know. Once Valerie learned that Cassidy had had a cardiac arrest, she immediately started doing research.
Valerie Seitz: I had certainly heard devastating stories about young perfectly healthy athletes unexplainedly collapsing on the court or the field out of nowhere, in the middle of playing a game. But I was very alarmed at how much I did not know. We had no idea. And that’s where my interest in awareness really comes into play. I was just stunned by how little we knew. Beginning with the difference between a SCA and a heart attack. I started researching and reading and I really haven’t stopped.
Avive: But Cassidy wasn’t out of the woods yet. They transported her to the first of what would be three different hospitals to stabilize her and assess her situation.
Valerie Seitz: First, the ambulance from Mammoth Ski Resort transported Cassidy to Mammoth Mountain Hospital. I caught up to Cassidy via the Mammoth Mountain personnel and had a surreal out of body experience that we have all seen on TV countless times; rushing through hospital ER entrance double doors and being met by an attending physician who informed me that they would come back and get me once I could see Cassidy who wasn’t yet stabilized….and worse, he told me Cassidy was in critical condition. They suspected seizures at that point. They ran a number of tests including a CT scan to make sure Cassidy didn’t have a head injury. Ultimately, they weren’t able to determine what was going on with her so they stabilized, sedated, and intubated her for transport. Cassidy was airlifted to the closest children’s trauma center, which was in Reno. It was quite a day and night. And this was on the 31st of December so it felt even more ominous…
Avive: In Reno. A series of tests all came back normal. So Cassidy was transported yet again. This time to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, Cassidy’s hometown.
Valerie Seitz: Now it’s about four o’clock in the afternoon at Reno Children’s Trauma Center- Cassidy is completely sedated, remains intubated, hooked up to all the monitors, all of it. Her vital signs were good, oxygenation levels were perfect. Her heart rates were perfect. The team in Reno decided to keep Cassidy stable and to run more tests. The on-call pediatric cardiologist came in and gave her an echo, probably ran more tests, I can’t recall, but after reviewing all the data he was able to determine she had a cardiac event. Her heart looked good, he walked me though all the imaging as he was observing and testing and he decisively advised they didn’t have the resources to treat Cassidy on site and she should be transferred yet again. While they typically transfer to Stanford Medical (also in Northern California and short distance from Reno), I asked him if we could go to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles because it is located so close to our home, and, as it turned out, he came from CHLA and affirmed that moving Cassidy to CHLA would be a good call. . . and so they took action to make that move. We secured another air rescue flight to LA and made it to the Pediatric Cardiac ICU at Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles at exactly 11:59 pm on New Year’s Eve, greeted by an amazing team who sprung to action settling Cassidy in.
It was just incredible–from that point Cassidy had a number of tests, but it was time to get her off the sedation medication and try to wake her up. Although her brain activity looked great, we were anxious to assess her cognitive state. They were able to wake her in what we estimate to be under five minutes. So although she didn’t speak for the first day after regaining consciousness and being extubated, she very quickly started to come back and her heart was working fine on its own. Cassidy didn’t really remember anything, was disoriented and all of that, but she began to rebound very quickly. Her neurologist had a really positive outlook for her in that regard. The cardiologists remained baffled – a skilled Electrophysiologist Cardiologist took the lead, ran several tests, observed her and on January 4th, she went into ICD implantation surgery. She remains undiagnosed to this day. Cassidy has tested negative for Brugada and Long QT and her genetic testing didn’t yield anything tangible.
Avive: Valerie says that Cassidy’s Sudden Cardiac Arrest has had a ripple effect among her peers. In hopes that this, along was sharing Cassidy’s story, will help to save lives in the future.
Valerie Seitz: Cassidy and Julianna attend the same school, and it’s on the smaller side, so her story and the awareness spread. The reaction from the community was one of shock and great relief. So much about Cassidy’s story feels like she slid into survival and full recovery on a slim margin that the chances that resources for a SCA save would be available and used properly. Everybody feels so deeply when there is no question your child’s life was barely and miraculously saved. There’s this acute awareness on the parent side. I feel like there’s a moment in time where you can reach though to the immediate community and spread awareness. If we are able to reach one person who will then engage at the next heart health screening, mission accomplished. The more kids and adults who are aware of the power and accessibility of AEDs and CPR– emergency preparedness, the better off we all are when the next emergency situation arises. I think simply knowing what an AED is, and beginning to recognize them in public spaces is a great start.
Avive: As Sudden Cardiac Arrest awareness increases, it is Valerie’s hope that the cost of AEDs will decrease.
Valerie Seitz: We set out to purchase an AED and I couldn’t help wonder how on a larger scale business, club sports teams, families etc. could afford to buy an AED (costing an average of $1200-$1,500). Especially if they don’t really believe they will ever need it…
Avive: For someone as active as Cassidy, staying idle isn’t an option. As she waits for doctors to clear her for gymnastics, she’s picked up a new sport.
Valerie Seitz: Cassidy is feeling really good so far, thankfully. She takes a beta blocker daily and is waiting to see when she can workout again. She’s excited to do some conditioning, she wants to ski, she wants to do anything and everything! Her doctor doesn’t want to close the door on gymnastics– he needs more time to see how she progresses. We plan to take it on a case-by-case basis, slowly. We feel so lucky to be in this position at all. Cassidy deals in tangibles and is not idly waiting. Two weeks ago, she tried golf for the first time and made the JV team at her school. Apparently, she has a natural golf swing and placed inside the top eight on her team which made her eligible to play her first match. We are so happy for her! She loves to compete, and we think golf (a life sport) is a great sport for her- it gets her outdoors, has a calm intensity and is a sport she can play throughout her life. We are so happy she is healthy and moving forward, and a bonus is she is discovering options she may not have otherwise considered. Silver lining.