Anyone who’s been watching the Olympic swimming events and wondering why lifeguards surround a pool filled with so many expert swimmers should talk to Ashley Dumais.
The young swimmer was at a high school swim meet in January when her heart stopped in the middle of a race.
The then-18-year-old began the day just as she had so many days when she had a swim meet. Up early, off to a meet, into the pool. The state swim meet was at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, about an hour from her home in Hudson.
As Ashley finished her lap of the 50-meter freestyle, typically her strongest event, she began to drop to the bottom of the pool. But the focus wasn’t on Ashley; it was on the next swimmer coming off the block.
Unbeknownst to the timer, the coach or anyone in the crowd, Ashley had gone into cardiac arrest.
Within moments the crowd noticed and grew frantic, yelling and pointing. The timer, Rich Spear, dove in, but he couldn’t push her up to the surface. Alvirne High swim coach Sean McLaughlin rushed to the pool deck. As Spear pushed, McLaughlin pulled. They got her out. Ashley had no pulse and was turning blue.
An anesthesiologist, an intensive care nurse and an EMT — what Ashley’s mom, Bonnie, calls the “dream team” — happened to be among the parents at the meet. They began CPR. A UNH student retrieved the automated external defibrillator, which was not by the pool but in another hallway.
Someone called Bonnie.
“They told me Ashley collapsed,” she said. Then, the high school principal told her that Ashley had gone into cardiac arrest.
She and her husband, Randy, dashed to their car for the one-hour trip to Durham.
Meanwhile, Ashley was rushed to the hospital in Exeter and quickly transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital, where doctors used therapeutic hypothermia to protect her organs and limit the risk of brain damage.
“We would touch her hands and try to warm them up, and then we realized that was not going to happen,” said Bonnie, becoming tearful as she recalled the event. No one knew if the high school senior would come out of it OK or whether she might have brain damage.
When Ashley woke up, her eyes darted around the room as she tried to figure things out.
The nurses removed the breathing tube. The next day when Ashley’s parents asked if she knew why she was there, she jokingly responded, “Yeah, because I’m a really bad swimmer.”
Doctors suspect Ashley has a condition called long QT syndrome, an often inherited condition that affects the heart’s electrical activity. Doctors implanted a defibrillator to regulate her heart rhythm, and she has been fine since.
Throughout her school years Ashley had never missed a day of school, but she had to miss that week. But on her way back from the hospital, she told her mother that she could not stay away another moment from the swim team. They were having a meet. She wanted to go.
The swimmers, all of whom had printed Ashley’s name on their arms in her honor, rushed to her with hugs and tears.
“I had not expected that,” she said of the emotional outpouring.
or did the family expect a large donation to be collected. Principal Steven Beals told Bonnie that the faculty and students had raised nearly $1,000. But the family didn’t need it, Bonnie said. Insurance had covered everything.
With the principal’s help, they came up with a plan: What if they used the money to buy AEDs for the school? New Hampshire is one of numerous states that does not mandate AEDs in all schools. Yet 100 percent of public schools have at least one, according to Bill Wood, head of procurement for New Hampshire schools.
Principal Beals was thrilled.
Then, the Dumais family paid it forward with one more gesture. On April 21, the school held a CPR training session, and every single student was trained in CPR.
Ashley graduated in June and will soon start college at Husson University. But in the meantime, what is Ashley doing for the summer?
Knowing something about what it means to have one’s life saved, she is serving as a lifeguard and swim instructor for the local YMCA.
Photos courtesy of the Dumais family