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A miraculous coincidence on Mt. Baker helps save a man's life

February 3, 2020
Skiers wearing ski masks and goggles ride the chair lift
As he enjoyed a day of skiing, a Mount Vernon resident's life changed forever

It was an overcast, snow-packed day on Mount Baker when Rick McKay and his youngest son Riley made the trek up to Mt. Baker Ski Area. The two take the trip just about every weekend.

With their season pass in hand and a love of skiing together, they set out for a day of carving turns.

Collapse in the lift line

It was Dec. 19, 2019, and after hitting the slopes, stopping for a lunch break and then heading back out, Rick and Riley made their way to the lift line. It was then that everything changed for Rick. He collapsed and woke up in the intensive care unit (ICU) at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Washington.Airlift NW helicopter

As a young retiree, Rick enjoys all the activities that come with a healthy lifestyle: fly fishing, skiing, hiking, water aerobics, yoga and riding motorcycles with friends. Having a heart condition threw a wrench in his lifestyle that he never saw coming.  

But on that day at Mount Baker when tragedy hit, good fortune was by his side. 

By some coincidence

Robert Moraca, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Cardiovascular Center, was in the lift line with his kids when Rick dropped to the ground.

“My son said Dr. Moraca jumped into action,” Rick says. “He didn’t skip a beat, just got down on the ground and began CPR, and worked to get my heart pumping again. He was determined.” It was a life-threatening situation, and Dr. Moraca used expert CPR and an automated external defibrillator (AED) on Rick.

One of the Mount Baker Pro Patrol emergency medical technicians, PJ Moran, called in the code, alerting Whatcom County Emergency Medical Services and worked alongside Dr. Moraca.

PJ is one of the 80 volunteers on the mountain, regularly donating their time and professional skills as medics, nurses and physicians with critical care and wilderness medical experience, according to DJ Jacobson, RN, the mountain’s aid room team coordinator who is himself a nurse in the cath lab at PeaceHealth St. Joseph.

Two other aid team medics, Devon Pelkie and Jay Ford, played key roles in the situation as well.

Despite the wealth of medical expertise on site, the team knew their fellow snow-sport enthusiast had to be urgently transferred to the hospital.

Instead of taking the hour and a half ride by ambulance, it was critical to get Rick there quickly.

Physicians at PeaceHealth who helped care for Rick“I heard the helicopter coming in and I was a bit concerned the cloudy skies would be a challenge for the helicopter to land safely,” Dr. Moraca says. “But by chance, the sky opened up and the helicopter landed.”

Brian Prince, an Airlift Northwest flight nurse and volunteer at Mount Baker, stayed at Rick’s side during transport to PeaceHealth St. Joseph, where doctors were standing by, ready to rush the patient into the catheterization lab (cath lab). Jimmy Yee, MD, was waiting. As the team began working, they determined that surgery was the best choice once they saw blockages in Rick’s heart. Dr. Yee consulted with cardiothoracic surgeon James Douglas, MD, who recommended bypass surgery. As it turns out, Dr. Douglas and Dr. Moraca work together as surgeons.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is an emergency procedure that can help save a person's life. Many organizations offer CPR training in the community. Check the American Red Cross, public health organizations or schools for a list of classes.

Wife greets before surgery

Rick’s wife, Eiren, a labor and delivery nurse, saw her husband for a brief second while the team transported him to surgery. Dr. Douglas was there to reassure her.

“Surgery went well, and Rick was very fortunate Dr. Moraca was on that mountain,” Dr. Douglas says. “Undiagnosed coronary artery disease was the cause of Rick’s heart emergency. With bypass surgery, we were able to stabilize Rick and treat his heart condition.”

As he recovered for nine days in the ICU, many were by his side, caring for him including both Drs. Moraca and Douglas and physician assistant, Sarah Spear.

Rick at the hospital with a physicianEven Marvin Wayne, MD, a retired PeaceHealth St. Joseph emergency medicine physician who assists with the Mount Baker volunteer medical team, visited Rick every day in the hospital. Dr. Wayne serves as Whatcom County Emergency Management Services medical program director.

Never before hospitalized

“Before this incident, I had never been hospitalized,” Rick says. “I found the PeaceHealth St. Joseph team and the care they provided to be far more compassionate, competent and gifted than I could ever imagine.” 

A visit from the flight nurse and team members from many of PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s departments, including the cath lab, emergency department and surgery, made this frightening experience bearable.

“My nurses were so competent, and who would think that the person who saved my life that day on the mountain — Dr. Moraca — would be one of the doctors caring for me during my hospital recovery?”

Rick and nurse at PeaceHealthAnd his recovery was truly miraculous. DJ notes, “This is the first code event [when someone’s heart and breathing stopped] on the mountain that’s ever been survived. Fortune was on our side.”

The experience hasn’t dampened Rick’s passion for the outdoors. He and his son are looking forward to hitting the slopes again next ski season, thanks to all of those who cared for him. 

If you have questions about your heart health, talk to your primary care doctor.

 

Preventive heart care can help keep you on a healthy path. A 45-minute Take Heart screening is available in Bellingham, Washington to help you understand your risks. Schedule the screening by calling 360-738-6720 or visit peacehealth.org/take-heart-screening.  

 

Photos, courtesy of Eiren McKay
Top photo:  On right, Rick McKay poses for a selfie with his son, Riley, on Mount Baker.
Second photo from top:  Airlift Norwest helicopter waits on the landing pad.
Third photo from top: A few of Rick's cardiovascular provider team include Sarah Spear, PA-C; Robert Moraca, MD and James Douglas, MD.
Fourth photo from top: Rick is visited by Marvin Wayne, MD, retired PeaceHealth St. Joseph emergency medicine physician who assists with the Mount Baker volunteer medical team.
Bottom photo:  Rick pauses with one of his nurses before heading home from the hospital.