Near-death experience gave 22-year-old a new outlook on life

Debi McGrath had refused to go in the water ever since her son nearly died of a heart attack while they were swimming together

  • Aug. 23, 2012 9:00 a.m.

Debi McGrath had refused to go in the water ever since her son nearly died of a heart attack while they were swimming together on Friday, May 13, 2011.

Then, at about 2:45 p.m. on Saturday, she dove off the pier at Sylvan Lake to join Austin, 22, for the last few minutes of a 7.5-kilometre swim he had just completed in front of his mom, his dad, Darryl and a few dozen others in support of the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Red Deer area office.

Austin said afterward that he didn’t realize at first that the person who jumped in with him was his mother, who was deeply traumatized by his heart attack and was unable to watch him train for Saturday’s event.

“I was surprised. She wouldn’t even go near the water. I was going to cry, but I held it in because I didn’t want to cry in front of hundreds of people,” said Austin, wolfing down his seventh hamburger paddy since stroking his way across the southeast side of the lake and back.

He had expected to swim five kilometres in about three or four hours with the hope of raising $5,000 to $10,000 to support Heart and Stroke Foundation research and programs.

He ended up swimming farther than expected and in less time, completing the swim in 3.5 hours total time, including a break on the accompanying sailboat to have a lunch and rehydrate.

Debi couldn’t watch.

Helping organizers get her son’s project underway, the Red Deer mother’s hands shook and she fought back tears as she described the ordeal her only child had overcome in the months since his heart attack and the discovery that he is affected by a genetic heart disorder.

Austin turned 21 in hospital on May 23, 2011 — unconscious and struggling to survive.

As his medical condition stabilized, he had to relearn how to sit up, how to talk and how to walk.

Few people on the pier for his swim on Saturday were more amazed than Red Deer emergency services technician Tom Patrick, who was the first responder to the scene that fateful day at the Red Deer Rec Centre, where mom and son had gone to swim lengths together.

Patrick had not seen McGrath since the day he and other members of his team were called to the pool, where they found an apparently lifeless man on the deck.

Another swimmer and a lifeguard had been performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while awaiting the ambulance. The emergency medical services team had to defibrillate three times to get the young athlete’s heart started.

Austin was rushed to hospital in Red Deer and then transferred to Foothills Hospital in Calgary, where he began what should have been a very long period of recovery.

Patrick volunteered his time on Saturday to ride along in an accompanying sailboat in case of a medical emergency. He had been on vacation the day the family came by to thank members of his crew for their help, so found it “really rewarding” to get a chance to meet Austin and join his support crew.

“We go through our careers and, a lot of the time, we see stuff that doesn’t really have a positive outcome like this,” said Patrick.

“This is a true testament to his lifestyle before he had his incident. He was a healthy guy, he worked out all the time and took care of himself. I think it really helped him recover. We’re just a small link in the chain.”

Sylvan Lake nurse Gail Foreman — a vocal activist in her role with Action on Smoking and Health — coached Austin through the swim from the seat of her kayak while her husband, Phil Foreman piloted the boat, powered by its outboard engine.

With her son safely ashore, Debi said her impromptu decision to jump into the water may help her get back into the water again and resume working out with her son, who had been an award-winning swimmer and martial artist before his collapse.

“Everybody was kind of telling me I needed to jump in the lake and swim back with him,” she said afterward.

“I think this has been very therapeutic for me, to watch him swim.”

Tammy Oliver-McCurdie, area manager for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, said Austin met his fundraising goal of $10,000 at 2:34 p.m., just 15 minutes before he returned to the pier from where his swim had started earlier in the day.

“He’s done a great job, mobilizing this entire event,” said McCurdie.

Interviewed before getting into the water, Austin said it was never really about the money.

“It was more about the story getting out. I kind of surpassed what everybody thought I could do. I’m supposed to still be in the hospital, in rehab. It’s just people telling me I can’t do something. Well, I can. I just prove them wrong.”

A graduate of Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High, Austin plans to upgrade his education at Red Deer College so he can gain admission to an engineering program.

While he doesn’t believe he has changed since his heart attack, he said his outlook on life definitely has.

“It’s a life-changing experience. It opens your eyes to all of the opportunities you have. Waking up every day, even having your mom yell at you, it’s like, ‘I’m really yelling at you, but I still love you.’”

by Brenda Kossowan – Black Press