An Idaho dad’s heart stopped as he swam in the Payette. Strangers worked a miracle.
Katy Moeller, Idaho Statesman
There’s never a good time or place to lose heart function.
But the situation was especially dire for 39-year-old Nick Sparks on July 7.
The Meridian father of two was on a relaxing Sunday outing with his family on the Payette River, about 40 miles north of Boise. They were swimming at Banks Beach, an area in the mountains with spotty cellphone coverage at best.
Soon after he went in the water, the Idaho Statesman reports Sparks went into cardiac arrest. That means an abrupt loss of heart function, and the heart isn’t pumping blood to the body’s organs. About 90 percent of people who experience cardiac arrest outside of a hospital die, according to the American Heart Association.
Rafters, swimmers and others playing in or near the river — and even some passing by on Idaho 55 — rallied to save Sparks, who had no pulse and was not breathing. He was unresponsive for 30 to 45 minutes, according to numerous people who were there.
While some initiated CPR, others tried to get through to 911 on their cellphones or drove to get help in the nearby town of Banks. Two different rafting companies got word and brought down portable defibrillators, also called automated external defibrillators, or AEDs.
Seven or eight people rotated in on rounds of CPR, and Sparks was shocked six times with a defibrillator. Those who fought to save him succeeded.
“It was a beautiful example of humanness — humanity at its finest,” said Micheli Oliver, a 22-year-old from Denver who always wondered when the CPR training she’d had since she was a teenage lifeguard might be needed. “No one gave up on it, no one gave up on his life.”
Oliver forced oxygen into Sparks’ lungs via mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, while her friend Casey Elliott and others took turns doing chest compressions.
The odds of a person surviving cardiac arrest increase two to three times if they receive CPR immediately, the American Heart Association says. But they still aren’t good: A major study published in 2012 found that more than 98% of people in the situations Sparks was in either died or had brain damage a month later.
Eagle orthodontist Sam Smith did many rounds of compressions on Sparks. He wouldn’t have even been at Banks Beach that day if someone hadn’t flagged him down as he and his two children were driving by on the highway.
“It was kind of a spiritual experience. There were some prayers going on,” Smith recalled. “It was a little miraculous for me to know that this guy probably defied the odds in being out for 30 to 40 minutes or an hour, and coming back.”
FACE DOWN, FLOATING DOWNSTREAM
The Sparks family hadn’t been at the river long when things went sideways. After a quick lunch, they headed for the water.
“I just remember putting my feet into the water, and I was like, ‘It’s too cold, I am not going in,’ ” Melissa Sparks recalled in an interview at their Meridian home.
She watched her husband and 9-year-old daughter, Kennadie, go in. The second time Nick dove under, he emerged with a weird look on his face, and then went face forward into the Payette.
“He started floating on his stomach but I could see bubbles coming out,” said Melissa, who initially thought he was playing with Kennadie but soon recognized something was wrong.
Kennadie told her they weren’t playing, and when she touched her dad he didn’t respond. He then began to get pulled downstream by the current. Melissa had her older daughter, McKynlee, 12, try to grab him before the water pulled him under and away. She also screamed for help as they struggled to get his 6-foot-1, 368-pound body out of the river.
Oliver and her friends had taken a break from rafting and were playing on a rope swing on the other side of the river when they noticed the commotion. They saw what appeared to be a towel adrift in the water — but it was actually Sparks’ back.
Marco Arizpe, an Eagle man who was at the river with his family, said he and several other men helped drag Sparks to the shore. He wasn’t completely out of the water when Oliver started CPR.
“That young girl from Colorado pretty much took over with the CPR,” said Arizpe, who decided to drive to a local restaurant after no one was able to get a signal on their cellphones. “That young girl, she was on top of it. It was pretty amazing.”
It’s unclear exactly how long it was from when Sparks collapsed to when emergency personnel were first notified, but the first call to 911 came into Boise County Emergency Dispatch at 3:08 p.m., Boise County Sheriff Jim Kaczmarek told the Statesman.
As the minutes ticked by and strangers worked to save her husband, Melissa Sparks wasn’t feeling very optimistic. She let Arizpe’s wife, Tasha, take her children up to the Arizpes’ Range Rover, away from the traumatic rescue efforts.
“I think what was going through my mind was I was going to become a widow because it had been so long,” Melissa Sparks said. “His face was purple. Like dark purple.”
Garden Valley Fire Department volunteers arrived at 3:34 p.m., according to department records. Lt. Dan Corsberg, a software engineer who has been a volunteer firefighter for six years, was in the department’s ground ambulance.
“It was amazing the things they had accomplished before we got there,” Corsberg said. All of the AED shocks had been administered by that point.
“We made a determination that he actually had a heartbeat,” Corsberg said. “But it was unclear how good a heartbeat he had and how much he was breathing. I focused on the airway and getting oxygen going with him.”
After the fifth or sixth shock from the AED, Sparks’ color had improved and he had started to regain consciousness, witnesses said.
Air St. Luke’s then landed on the highway at 4:12 p.m., Garden Valley fire records show.
DEFIBRILLATORS CAN RESTORE HEART RHYTHM
Sparks’ doctors told him that he had an undiagnosed heart problem, specifically a rhythm disorder called Long QT syndrome. It’s essentially a malfunction of the heart’s electrical system.
The rare disorder can be inherited or caused by some medications. Sparks’ parents and sister have been tested for the disorder, and they don’t have it. He thinks he might have developed as a result of medications he took as a child.
It gained notoriety because young athletes have died suddenly during strenuous workouts or games. Other known triggers are swimming and loud noises, Saint Alphonsus Medical Center cardiologist Matthew Nelson told the Statesman.
Speaking generally, Nelson said a person typically suffers irreversible brain damage about 10 minutes after the heart stops. Doing CPR buys time until the heart gets restarted.
“As you push on the chest, it’s pushing blood through the body,” Nelson said. “Even though it’s not great oxygen, every organ can take oxygen out of the blood and stay alive.”
Restoring heart function quickly is critical to saving lives, and that’s why automated external defibrillators are becoming more common in public places. They are designed so they can be used by people with little or no training; audio commands guide users through the process.
Phil White, owner of Bear Valley Rafting, delivered the defibrillator that was used on Sparks. He said he’s had the device at his store — less than a mile from Banks Beach — since 2006. The July 7 rescue was the first time it’s ever been used.
“We just decided it was good to have precaution,” White said. “There’s a lot of things we deal with on the highway. We’re closer than anybody to a lot of these wrecks. It happens right in front of our place all the time. The ambulance crew is a volunteer department, and they’re 20 to 30 minutes away.”
Cascade Raft and Kayak owner Kenneth Long also got word that a defibrillator might be needed, and he brought his to the scene as well, arriving after White. Long and his brother got there just after the defibrillation shocks began.
“After that last shock, it was like he just woke up. It was remarkable, like a slow, groggy wake-up,” Long said. “He was complaining about how bad his chest hurt. He was worried that his wife was going to be mad at him. He was quite coherent.”
Long added: “It was completely stunning, how it went from no breathing and pulse to him getting his color back, and starting to take deep breaths on his own.”
There were tears, hugs and high-fives all around as Sparks was loaded into the air ambulance. Sparks’ wife and two daughters couldn’t ride in the helicopter, so Arizpe and his wife drove them and their vehicle down to the hospital in Boise.
A CHANCE AT A HEALTHIER, LONGER LIFE
Sparks doesn’t remember a whole lot from that day, though he had some awareness during the series of defibrillator shocks. His eyes were open but he said he couldn’t see anything.
He could hear people yelling, including someone say, “Clear!”
“I remember laying there going, I don’t want to die here,” Sparks said. “Please don’t let me die in front of my kids. Please don’t let me die in front of my wife like this. Is this how I go?”
Due to his arrhythmia, doctors implanted a defibrillator about the size of a deck of cards in his chest. He was released from the hospital four days later.
Sparks is having some memory issues now — trouble remembering recent things, not what happened years ago. His cardiologist told him recently that his heart is on course to make a full recovery.
The trauma to his chest from the CPR was significant. None of his ribs were broken, though that’s not uncommon. Still, a month and a half later, his torso is very sore to the touch in some places, he said.
He’s back to work full time at his job as a car salesman at Corwin Ford in Nampa and has a whole new outlook on life. He realizes that he did a poor job of taking care of himself.
“I hadn’t been to a doctor in 10 to 12 years,” said Sparks, who will turn 40 in March.
He said he has adopted a better diet and stopped consuming large quantities of energy drinks and coffee. That’s helped him lose 35 pounds and get his blood pressure under control. He’s getting better at work-life balance, too, he said.
“I used to take things for granted, like doing things with the kids,” Sparks said. Now rather than staying late at work, he tells himself it’s OK to go home.
Sparks plans to spend more time doing other things he loves, including being a radio show co-host on The Uncle Jimmy Show from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays on KBOI-670 AM.
He and his family said it’s difficult to express their full gratitude to all those who helped them on July 7 — and those who’ve been supportive in the weeks after.
“All the stuff that had to happen and go exactly right, it’s pretty fortuitous and pretty amazing,” Sparks said. “We’re talking minutes difference of each thing, and it’s a different circumstance. I know that I’m lucky.”