|Sometimes Death Takes On A Different Color|
by Robert "JAKAL" Lawton - firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes death takes on a different color. It certainly did for us last weekend. One of our tandem students bought himself his first tandem skydive - and a ride in a cracker box complete with whoopie lights. It didn't have to turn out that way, but he made his choices.
It all started when I joined up with my friends for lunch. I'd spent the morning weatherizing my trailer and needed a hot meal. A new face, shy a tooth or two, had joined them. My friends were giving him helpful hints like "be sure to grab your knees on exit. It helps. The instructors only tell you to grab your harness because some people aren't very flexible, and we don't want to make them feel bad." We were on a wind hold, so he got lots of experienced advice. He grinned a lot, so I could tell he was enjoying our company. I've got nice friends.
Everyone but our newest graduates manifested as soon as the winds eased up a bit. Since we had no base practice today, I wanted to do a zoo load with a couple of friends. They wanted to work on "burble hopping" just like Arizona Airspeed, instead. I started to argue, but realized I couldn't have planned a better zoo load if I'd tried.
So we did the gear check, dirt dive, load plane thing. Our friend from lunch waved back at us from the front of the plane. We gave him a big thumbs up. He was wedged in with a bevy of tandem masters and a couple of babes. He'd stay warm. He sure looked happy.
Jump run, spotting, exit, dive all went on cue. We did our share of landing on each other's backs and so on. Burble hopping on purpose is a lot harder than doing it by accident, but we managed okay. With only three of us on the dive, we had plenty of flying time. After pulling, I also had a chance to really play with my canopy. Usually my airspace is constricted, and I have to fly by the numbers so as not to cut anyone off. Not this time! As my canopy descended, my spirits soared.
I landed first, toddled back to the hanger, dropped my gear, and noticed a small crowd gathering in the landing area. Here's what happened.
Our new friend from lunch had a lovely freefall. After opening, he said to his tandem master, Johnny Utah, that he was having trouble breathing. Johnny's no slouch. He loosened the kid's chest strap a bit. Gasping, the kid said he was still having trouble breathing. Johnny asked him if he had asthma or anything. The kid said yes. And then he passed out (that sort of thing happens when you stop breathing).
Johnny is a sharp guy. He put his canopy into a spin and held it. The seconds ticked by, and every one of those seconds counted. Johnny brought the canopy out of its spin under 1,000 feet and initiated a final approach that would land him right in front of the hanger. Since Johnny was now the lowest tandem, he had all the tandem catchers' full attention. One of the catchers noted the unconscious student and commented "there's a dead one." Funny, ha ha. Funny, but true. Fortunately, the jape caught everyone's attention, and Johnny had a lot of ground assistance for his landing.
Wendy, a recent graduate and volunteer tandem catcher ran up to assist. She's also a nurse. Johnny unhooked his student. The kid's face was sky blue. He wasn't breathing. He didn't have a pulse. In a less enlightened day that would have been the end of him. Thanks to Johnny's quick wits and fast descent, the kid had only been out for a minute or two. He had a chance.
The kid had no medical tags. Wendy initiated CPR. Manifest called 911 and looked up the kid's waiver. The seconds ticked. The waiver provided no medical information. Our local ambulance response times are excellent, but not good enough for this sort of casualty.
Wendy continued CPR, we had three more CPR trained jumpers standing by. Then the kid's face began to change colors a bit from blue to pink. He started gasping on his own. Wendy rolled him onto his side. He tried reaching into his pockets (under his jumpsuit). He got help. Christy emptied his front pocket - a package of smokes. She emptied his back pocket - an asthma inhaler. Things went smoother from there. The ambulance arrived. A reporter sat in the parking lot scribbling notes. Life at the DZ returned to normal.
Our new friend remembers only part of his skydive. I hope he'll remember his new friends. I don't know if he'll come back to make another jump, but the fact that he's around today is due to Johnny's quick response and Wendy's medical professionalism. His first skydive could have turned out much worse. Fortunately, temporary fatalities don't count in the official statistics.
It also could have turned out much better. Our new friend should have completed his medical waiver honestly. He should have told his tandem master about his condition. The tandem master could have stowed the inhaler for easy retrieval. He could have still jumped (my guess). Wendy told me later that cold air and excitement each can trigger an asthma attack; he was taking a pretty big risk on his own.
Cold air and excitement pretty much describes skydiving conditions here in Illinois in November: thrilling and bracing, good people, warm fires, and hot drinks. I really love this sport.
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