Coach is alive thanks to team

DOWNEY - As a lifeguard at Norwalk Aquatic Pavilion, Evelyn Cruz learned CPR just in case of an emergency, but always hoped she'd never have to use it.But Cruz had no choice on July 18, when girls' cross country coach John Kosarich suffered a heart attack while training with his Downey High School team in Turnbull Canyon, the hills north of Whittier. While trailing his runners on a mountain bike, Kosarich, 68, collapsed and went into full cardiac arrest. Cruz, who graduated from Downey High School in June, was assisting Kosarich with the team when it happened. "I was shocked at first - he had no pulse," said Cruz, 17. "We were just trying to find a phone - I knew I had to do CPR." As a result of Cruz's quick action, and the help of some admirable bikers, Kosarich survived the incident, receiving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for more than 20 minutes before paramedics arrived to revive him. "Sometimes people panic and don't know what to do," said Amy Overgaauw, who coaches track and field at Downey High. "But Evelyn and the girls were right on it." Minutes after Cruz began CPR, four bikers stopped to help when they saw the girls gathered around Kosarich. All four bikers just happened to be Downey residents and one was a registered nurse. As an educator in critical care at USC Medical Center, Marcelo Astudillo, 42, immediately started chest compressions when he saw that Kosarich was not breathing. "I've been in critical care for so long - it's just an instinct," said Astudillo over the phone. "Every time we stopped, he still had no pulse." Due to their position in the hills, cell phone reception was inconsistent and the paramedics struggled to pinpoint their location. "There was no help," said Astudillo. "We all did a round [of CPR] while we waited for the paramedics." Astudillo and the other three bikers, Kenny Soto, Ramon Aquilar and Anthony Nunez, are no strangers to Turnbull Canyon. Astudillo said the group rides the canyon route together two to three times a week, but had no plans of taking the course they took on July 18. Kenny Soto, 29, who graduated from Downey High in 1998, remembers their decision that day. "Normally we go just up and down, but that day we went up another trail," said Soto, who works for the city of Downey in the public works department. "We debated whether to go left or right - we went around the back way and we saw them." After more than 20 minutes, the paramedics arrived, using a defibrillator to jolt Kosarich's heart back into rhythm. Astudillo watched Kosarich's response as the paramedics worked on him. "He started gagging and reaching for his mouth," said Astudillo. "I was relieved at that time. I knew he was going to be OK." After hearing the story, Mark Sauter, the deputy city manager of public safety and emergency operations, felt it was remarkable. "It's incredible that this ad hoc team could do such a good job," said Sauter, a former paramedic. "It was an amazing chain of events. If any of the things in the chain had been broken, John would not be with us." Kosarich was taken to Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital in Whittier, where doctors discovered that five of Kosarich's arteries were blocked. Kosarich underwent heart surgery to replace the arteries and was released from the hospital on July 26. Kosarich credits his team and the four bikers for keeping him alive. "I owe them my life - I love them because of that," said Kosarich. "I ignored the indicators. I wasn't following the guidelines - but now I am." While visiting Downey High School last week, Kosarich, a slender man with gray hair and clear eyes, walked sturdy and determined. Though unable to drive, Kosarich still attends practices and expects a full recovery soon. "I'm still relying on people, but I'm back now," said Kosarich with a smile. "I'm back in the fold." During a city council meeting on Aug. 11, Sauter arranged for the bikers and the girls' cross country team to be honored with certificates of recognition for their actions. "This is a learning experience - we need to be prepared for things," said Sauter. "I hope more people will learn CPR." Astudillo believes everyone should get CPR certified and maintains that it was no accident that Kosarich survived. "He got another chance to live," said Astudillo. "God put us there - it wasn't his time to go."

********** Published: August 21, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 18