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Out of life and death, heroes emerge

Lifesavers from the River Falls Swim Club were reunited Monday evening, Oct. 1, at the high school pool with fellow swim club member and the girl who was saved, Marissa Metzler (wearing T-shirt). Surrounding Marissa from left are: Sonja Heiniger, Becca Thomas, and brothers Ben and Jon Heiniger. <i>Submitted photo</i>

River Falls Swim Club Interim Coach Gunnar Teigen knew he had "good athletes and great kids" on his team. What he didn't know was how some were capable of heroism.

He saw plenty of heroic action Friday night, Sept. 21, at the high school swimming pool.

Three swim club members in particular came together as a lifesaving trio on behalf of 12-year-old Marissa Metzler of the town of Troy.

Marissa's heart stopped beating in the pool lane as she finished a kickboard drill.

She was floating chest up, legs down, arms flailing. What happened in the next few minutes proved to be the difference between life and death.

"It was remarkable to see the confidence and calmness that everyone displayed," Teigen said. "Even those who weren't in the middle of it respected the space needed for the rescue. There was a total lack of panic, which was important because that meant no distractions."

Three of Metzler's swim mates, brothers Ben and Jon Heiniger, ages 15 and 14, and Becca Thomas, 15, along with Ben and Jon's mother, Sonja Heiniger, a former physician assistant, formed the spontaneous team of rescuers.

The three teens had recent CPR training. Sonja was watching swim practice from the upper balcony.

She spotted Marissa thrashing in the water, yelled "get her" and raced downstairs to the pool.

Becca, a trained lifeguard, was still in the pool herself. She swam over and, keeping Marissa's head above water, grabbed and carried her out.

Marrisa was placed on the pool deck and soon tipped to the side but no water came from her mouth.

Others from the pool gathered close. Teigen couldn't get a pulse. Marissa had seizures from the oxygen cutoff.

"Marissa was lifeless. Her heart had stopped. I knew it was a sudden cardiac arrest. I didn't even recognize her she looked so bad," said Sonja. "Her lips were completely blue, her skin was colorless and her pupils were blown out and dilated."

Sonja had the poolside emergency phone to call 911 but couldn't get it to work. She handed the phone to Tiegen who punched in the prefix 99 before the 911 so the call for help would go through.

Fourteen-year-old Jon said they had to start CPR. He began chest compressions. Sonja bent over Marissa to do mouth-to-mouth breathing.

Ben, a natural observer, had noticed during swim club practices an AED (automated external defibrillator) stored in a nearby corridor glass cabinet.

As part of his recent CPR training, Ben knew how to use the portable device that diagnoses heart rhythms and delivers electric currents to re-establish normal heartbeats.

Ben ran from the pool, grabbed the AED, which briefly set off a school building alarm, and returned to the pool deck in seconds.

The battery-operated AED with two sticky pads was attached to Marissa's chest.

It was used twice to deliver shocks to Marissa's heart.

Meanwhile, Becca took over handling chest compressions from Jon. Sonja said Becca brought renewed energy that seemed to stimulate Marissa.

Between the AED shocks, the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compressions, Marissa began to come around though she still had no pulse.

"Her eyes were normal, she was stirring. She groaned and nodded when asked if she could hear us," Sonja said. "Those were positive signs."

River Falls Ambulance paramedics then arrived to take over. Before they left with Marissa, Sonja said they congratulated the swim club for a job well done.

For much more on this story, please see the Oct. 4 print edition of the River Falls Journal or the Hudson Star Observer.