The thing that kept coming up for me afterwards was the sound of the helicopter,” says Amber Sample, 33. “That sound is what started all the healing.” Amber and her husband, James, live in Placerville, California. They moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to this El Dorado County community of 10,000 to raise their children Zane (6), Kambryn (4 ½), Kason (3) and Zyli (4 months).
Amber’s helicopter memory dates back to June 5, 2017. James had just started a new consulting job. In fact, he was on his first business trip that day, flying to Charlotte, North Carolina, via Atlanta. Amber and the kids had been invited to a pool party. “We were at a friend’s house swimming and enjoying our first week off of school,” Amber says. “There were three other adults there, a couple teenagers and about a dozen kids aged six and under.”
Despite the fact that she loves water, Amber had to put some effort into relaxing that day. She shares, “About an hour before we were supposed to go to the pool, I had this gut wrenching feeling. I had a pit in my stomach, but I finally just swallowed it.”
James and Amber had already enrolled Kason, who was two at the time, in swim classes. “He had his little floatie on and I was showing him how to swim with it,” his mom says. “He swam while I sat in the shade next to the pool with my two-month old.” Eventually Kason got out of the pool and joined his mother and sister, announcing, “Mommy, me hungry.” Since he was wet, Amber set him up in the sun with his snack. “He wanted his floatie off while he was eating,” she says, “and when I reminded him, he had to have it on if he wanted to swim again, he kept saying, ‘all done, all done’.”
As it turned out, the pool party ended earlier than expected when it became obvious a thunderstorm was brewing. As the guests finished packing up their belongings, someone noticed something in the pool. Amber says, “I looked up and the last few minutes flashed in my mind— ‘mommy me hungry’…‘floatie off’…and I realized it was Kason.” She immediately dove into the pool and swam to her son. “He was completely lifeless,” she says. Amber started screaming for help and a friend, realizing what was going on, ran over to help pull Kason out of the pool.
“I was in shock,” Amber says. “Imagine seeing your child lifeless and blue.” A teenage girl pushed her way through the adults and started pumping Kason’s chest. Amber joined her, doing the breathing. Someone else called 911. “After the first breath he threw up,” Amber says. “I gave him another breath. He was really struggling, but he started breathing and his color started coming back. Then I heard sirens.”
The region’s 911 calls are received by the Sheriff’s Department and immediately transferred to a dispatch center run by CAL FIRE (the California Department of Forestry). Upon learning the nature of Kason’s emergency, CAL FIRE dispatched fire, an ambulance and a helicopter simultaneously. The responding fire department was Diamond Springs, and the responding air ambulance base was REACH 17 in Sacramento. Amber was somewhat taken aback when she learned that a helicopter was coming for her son. “That’s when I realized how serious it was.”
When fire and ambulance arrived, REACH Pilot Pat Williams was already circling the scene. A landing zone had been set up at a nearby church. Paramedics loaded Kason onto the ground ambulance and drove him to the aircraft. There, REACH Flight Nurse Jerald Johnson and Flight Paramedic Jason Vander Meer took responsibility for Kason’s care.
Jason, who has experience as both a fire fighter and a paramedic, remembers Kason’s pickup as notably quick and streamlined. “Having dispatch send fire, ambulance and the helicopter all at once is not typically done. But when dispatch heard that the emergency involved a two-year old drowning, they made a good choice, and we made really good time.”
The helicopter took off just seven minutes after landing. Jerald and Jason cared for Kason while Pat safely flew them to UC Davis Medical Center, an acute care teaching hospital that could give Kason the specialized care he needed.
Amber called her husband to tell him what had happened. James took the call at the Atlanta airport, where he was just getting ready to board his flight to Charlotte. Instead, he secured a seat on the last flight to San Francisco, where he rented a car for the drive to UC Davis. “I’m not sure how he held it together through a six-hour flight and an hour-and-a-half drive,” says Amber, “but he did!”
Amber and a friend made the road trip to Davis together. “I had a chance to fly with Kason on the helicopter, but I chose not to,” Amber shares. “I was afraid I would just slow things down. I told them to please just get him where he needed to go. I knew that helicopter was his best chance of survival.”
From the moment Gerald and Jason started working with Kason until the moment they transferred him to the UC Davis Pediatric ER staff, they monitored him with keen focus, particularly watching his breathing. “Before we even loaded Kason, I figured there was a possibility we might need to RSI him on the flight. (Rapid sequence intubation (RSI) is a medical procedure involving a prompt induction of general anesthesia and subsequent intubation of the trachea. Airway compromise is the most common cause of death and severe disease states in acutely ill and injured children. Rapid-sequence intubation is designed to maximize safe and successful intubation.) I had radioed Gerald to set up for RSI so we’d be ready if we needed to do it. Then we loaded Kason and went. We had some good discussion about whether or not we needed to sedate him and intubate him during transport. We ultimately decided we didn’t want to take the breathing away from him. The gain didn’t outweigh the risk.”
The REACH crew transferred Kason to the UC Davis Pediatric Emergency staff, who observed him intently. Because Kason had water in his lungs, they moved forward with the RSI. Jason shares, “In speaking with a physician there, she said we made the right decision not to do an RSI on the flight as the hospital was better equipped to deal with any problems or complications.”
Amber arrived at UC Davis, and she quickly developed an appreciation for the staff. “They assigned a social worker to me. They explained what I would see when I walked into the Pediatric ER.”
While Kason’s bed in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) was being prepared, he remained under the care of the Pediatric Emergency Room staff. “They explained that he was intubated to pump the water out, and that he was sedated so he wouldn’t pull everything out,” she says. “They also told me he had been fighting the flight medics, and that the flight medics were really relieved by that. It took four people to hold him down when he got into the ER, and he kept fighting until the sedative reached the right level. At one time he even woke up and mouthed, ‘Mom’.”
Kason remained intubated for only about 32 hours, so his stay in the PICU was brief. “The people from PICU were crying because they just couldn’t believe he made it into regular pediatric care so fast,” says his mom, who noticed something very intriguing after Kason’s breathing tube was removed. “He came out of sedation speaking sentences that he had never spoken before,” she shares. “His vocabulary and his speech are better than they used to be.” She also reports that Kason has never appeared to have any nightmares after the accident. He remembers many things from that day. “When they woke him up, I told him he was in the hospital. I told him, ‘Mommy had to breathe for you,’ and he said, ‘Mama, big jump! Close eyes!’ I think he went down the slide because he’s done that before.” And like his mother, Kason remembered the sound of the helicopter. The very first time she mentioned it, he said, ‘Yeah! Helicopter loud!’ “He talks about the helicopter often,” she reports.
In the Pediatric unit, Kason continued to receive regular observation and care. He responded well, and doctors released him on June 10. Kason was glad to be home with his family, and he “got back on the horse” without hesitation. “On our first trip to the pool after his return home he jumped right in,” says Amber, “and he’s almost swimming on his own now. He took swimming lessons all summer.” As for herself, she says, “When I look back on the whole thing, it’s like an out-of-body experience. I’m doing well now, though. I did therapy, and I feel like I’m 95% healed. It was in therapy that the sound of the helicopter kept coming up…as the sound of relief.”
Amber did get very emotional on one particular occasion, Kason’s third birthday. “He’s a miracle,” she explains. “This whole thing was a spiritual experience, one like I’ve never had before. I feel like everyone was placed in the right spot to make it a success. I feel empowered about telling Kason’s story. I feel like I need to share his story.”
Greg Morgan, a REACH 17 Flight Paramedic, states, “This was truly an amazing call, and one with such a great outcome! It was the three agencies working together that made it happen. We’ve all done special training together to learn how the other teams work. If we hadn’t done that training, this wouldn’t have happened.”