One close shave

Volunteer's commitment to the community reaps personal rewards


Skagway relies heavily on its volunteers. Sometimes the volunteers reap the rewards of their efforts in the most dramatic ways. Nancy Schave has been teaching emergency medical training classes in Skagway for the last seven years. On December 10, Schave would need the expertise and training of a qualified EMT after her heart stopped beating at the Yuletide showing of “It’s A Wonderful Life”.
If Schave had been conscious throughout the ordeal she would have known she was in good hands. After all, she trained them.
Schave, a 30-year Alaska resident, moved to Skagway in 1989. “I was superintendent at the school when I heard they needed volunteers,” said Schave. “They needed firefighters, so I volunteered. I resisted becoming an EMT at first – then they pushed me to become a teacher.”
Schave continues, “I put my best into my teaching – I always said (to my class), ‘You can pass with a 70 percent, but I know one day I will need an EMT. Since I’m the teacher, I don’t want a 70 percenter working on me.’”
A short time into the movie at the National Park Service auditorium, Schave’s husband, Frank Wasmer, noticed his wife breathing irregularly. Wasmer thought she might be snoring when he noticed a rattle in her breath. Schave describes this as a “death rattle” which Wasmer is familiar with due to his training and his familiarity with Schave’s heart condition.
“It is a conduction problem,” said Schave. Faulty electrical current makes the otherwise healthy and robust Schave susceptible to sudden heart stoppage. The problem used to be an occasional one, but as it has gotten worse she decided to have a procedure done six moths ago called embolation which intentionally makes scars in the heart to direct electrical current away from problematic areas in the organ.
Wasmer pulled up Schave’s head to feel for a pulse. When he couldn’t find a pulse, he wondered what he was doing wrong. It was then he realized he was not doing anything wrong and asked for someone to call 911.
The children were cleared from the auditorium and Wasmer began administering CPR to Schave. One of her students, Seth Plunkett, came running over and began assisting Wasmer with CPR while Dimitra Lavrakas, another student, started looking for the Automated External Defibrillator or AED.
“The (Park Service) is so safety conscious it was surprising to look up for the sign for the defibrillator and realize it was not posted,” said Lavrakas.
Moviegoer Peter Luchetti was able to find the AED and got it to the hands of Lavrakas. She continues, “We put the pads on (Schave). It ran its analysis and said there was no pulse. We shocked her.”
“After the first shock, they continued CPR,” said Schave. “There was still no pulse – and they had to shock me again.”
Plunkett also realized the importance of oxygen for someone whose heart has stopped. The lack of it can cause brain damage, among other things, even if the patient is receiving CPR.
“Seth shows up with the (oxygen),” said Lavrakas. “Only (Park Service personnel) knew it was there.”
“They were administering the third shock when the ambulance arrived,” said Schave.
The third shock triggered a pulse and Schave was on the road to recovery. She was airlifted from Skagway at 2:30 a.m. and was taken to the University of Washington Medical Center courtesy of Airlift Northwest.
No one could foresee the ultimate result of Schave’s volunteer efforts. Not only did her commitment to volunteer emergency training come full circle when her own students came to her aid, but she also wrote the grant that provided many facilities in Skagway with the AEDs. “I never thought of myself when I (secured the grant). I was thinking of the community,” said Schave.
The devices simply need be turned on and they give audio instruction to the user, guiding them step-by-step to its own proper usage.
Lavrakas offers a self-deprecating expression when she describes the simplicity of the machine that she used to help save Schave’s life. “That’s the wonderful thing about it,” Lavrakas said. “An idiot can do it.”
Schave has her own slogan she has drilled into her students when it comes to the AED, “The cure is in the box.”
While CPR is an effective method for preserving a life until help arrives, the AEDs administer a shock that actually resets the heart and can make the heart beat on its own again.
“It can pace the heart, cardiovert (or reset it), and defibrillate,” explains Schave. “You don’t need to be trained to use an AED.”
While many places in Skagway are now equipped with an AED, all involved agree that the signage that originally came with the units needs to be displayed as it was intended. Lavrakas stresses, “Use the signs that came with the defibrillator.”
Schave is thankful to the people who saved her life and desires to train everyone in this life-saving art. She said, “I am grateful that people know that CPR and AEDs do work and I hope they will take classes with me in the future.”
Schave will be teaching a CPR class in February and EMT classes in April. She makes the offer, “We would love to have people sign up. I put my best into my teaching.”
Lavrakas echoes the sentiment of many who witnessed the event unfold at the showing of the film that night. “I am struck by the irony of it happening during that movie,” she said.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” asks the question: What would life have been like if I were never born? When asking this question concerning Schave, its answer is a paradox, impossible to answer.
Lavrakas sums it up, “It was a Christmas miracle.”