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Westfield State swimmer uses CPR training to breathe life for her dad

By Shannon Fitzsimmons as told to Rachel Stark-Mason

When Mike Fitzsimmons collapsed at a gym in July 2018, his daughter Shannon (left), a senior swimmer at Westfield State, was there to save him by performing CPR. The two are pictured with Shannon’s sister, Caitlyn. Submitted by the Fitzsimmons family

I had just gotten out of work as a lifeguard at the Burbank YMCA in Reading, Massachusetts. Usually after work, whether it’s lifeguarding or my summer teaching job, I go to the gym. My dad and I both go to the same semiprivate training gym. He had just finished the 5:15 workout class and was sitting in a chair waiting for me when I walked in at 6:15 for my class. I said, “Oh, hey, Dad.” And then I turned to the trainers and said “hi” to them.

My dad didn’t respond to me, and as I got closer, I realized he was sitting in the chair convulsing. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Dad, Dad, are you OK?” Still no response. I turned to the trainers and yelled, “Help! I need help!” At that point he was still breathing and had a pulse, so the trainers stayed with him as I called 911.

Soon after, all pulse and breathing were lost. We moved him to the floor, and I began CPR on him for two minutes until the paramedics showed up. I had just redone my CPR certification, so it was fresh in my head. But I had only done it on mannequins in training, never on a real person. Still, as soon as I saw the signs of what was going on, I knew what to do. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, my gosh, this is my dad.” I was looking at it as, “What do I have to do to save this person?”

I tend to be very calm and focused in stressful situations, and I think that definitely helped. It wasn’t until the paramedics showed up and they took over the situation that I started having all these questions running through my head. How do I tell my mom what’s going on? How do I tell my sister? What is the outcome going to be?

It ended up taking two shocks from the automated external defibrillator to get him back to breathing on his own. He had gone into cardiac arrest. Basically, the way the doctor described it to him later, he didn’t have a heart attack; he dropped dead.

I rode in the ambulance with him to the hospital, where he had quadruple bypass surgery. The doctors and nurses were absolutely phenomenal. He was in the hospital maybe two weeks. And now he’s doing great. In October, he was cleared to go back to all physical activity. So he’s doing everything he was doing before without any restrictions. He’s so lucky.

You realize you only have one shot at everything. I had one shot at that CPR, and I had to hope that it worked. And you have one shot at every race every time you get in the pool. You have to put all your effort into everything and not take that for granted.

Shannon Fitzsimmons is a senior majoring in English and secondary education at Westfield State. She is a captain of the Owls swim team and holder of nine school records. In July, she saved her dad’s life by performing CPR after he went into cardiac arrest at their hometown gym.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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