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'I'm lucky all the way around'

Curler Keith Switzer pushes for AED awareness after having life saved at White Rock's Peace Arch Curling Club last year.
Curler Keith Switzer (centre) curls during 2016 Masters National Championships.

A campaign by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada to boost awareness of life-saving defibrillator devices likely won’t find better support than it will at the Peace Arch Curling Club.

After all, it was little more than a year ago that a visiting curler – Vancouver’s Keith Switzer – dropped to the ice in cardiac arrest, only to have his life saved by the presence of an AED (automated external defibrillator) and the quick thinking and expertise of a handful of fellow curlers.

On Jan. 30, 2015, Switzer, a 66-year-old member of both Vancouver and Richmond curling clubs, was curling his first game of a mixed-doubles provincial championship tournament, when he suddenly collapsed in the fourth end of the game.

“I’d just had a chance to take a significant lead, but my rock hit something and (spun out)… so I’d come down to the other end of the ice to talk to my partner, but that’s the last thing I remember,” explained Switzer.

“People who saw me said my legs just went out from under me, and I clutched my chest, but I don’t remember any of it.”

On-ice official Scott Mol was the first to respond to Switzer’s fall, and he was quickly followed by curler Shelley Birston – a registered nurse – and Della Bird, who was at the event with her husband, Kent, manager of the Peace Arch Curling Centre at the time.

The first assumption, Switzer said, was that he’d slipped on the ice. When it was discovered that Switzer was showing no vital signs, Mol and Birston began performing CPR,  911 was called, and Bird – who was trained on PACC’s in-house AED – used the defibrillator to restart Switzer’s heart.

“They zapped me once and it didn’t take… but they tried it again and that time it worked,” Switzer said. “All of this happened inside of four minutes. The paramedics arrived a few minutes later, but without those three… and without an AED, I don’t know where I’d be.

“I’m just lucky all the way around. They saved my life.”

Switzer was whisked away to hospital soon after, and after doctors discovered his main coronary artery was “fully blocked,” he underwent open-heart surgery at Vancouver General Hospital. The robotic-assisted surgery was far less invasive than traditional open-heart surgery, Switzer said, which shortened recovery time.

“The good news is this happened near the end of the curling season, so I didn’t miss too much,” he joked. “And I was back again in September.”

He ran into the Birds soon after his return, at a bonspiel in Abbotsford.

“I get goosebumps every time I see him,” Della Bird said. “I’m was scary, but I’m so glad we had the tools to help him.”

Switzer’s recovery went smoothly – in fact, he joked that “I find myself leaping tall buildings” now that his heart is in proper working order – but he knows there are many others who are not as lucky.

It is why he agreed to take part in the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s push for AED awareness – a campaign that includes the launch of a new smartphone app, “Call. Push. Restart.” The app walks people through the steps required to perform CPR as well as how to use an AED.

While Switzer says many curling rinks across the country now have AEDs, he encourages more athletic facilities – especially those popular among seniors – to install them, and more people to learn how to use them.

“I showed no earlier signs of heart problems, and these things come without warning. They say that 98 per cent of people don’t make it, so I was in that lucky two per cent, but I could’ve been somewhere else,” Switzer said. “There is a value and a need for these devices.”