The Breath of Life

Becky O'GuinFeatured News

By Brett Kessler, D.D.S., CDA Past President and ADA President-Elect, From the 2024 Spring Journal of the Colorado Dental Association

Dr. Brett Kessler

The interesting thing about trauma is that sometimes you don’t know you even went through it. As dentists we spend so much time helping others that we often internalize our own needs and experiences. This happened to me last fall and I needed help — but didn’t realize it until weeks/months later.

I went swimming with three friends in Hawaii. It was great to be on the big island again. I raced at the Ironman World Championship there in 2018 and 2019 – two of the best days of my life. I was so excited to swim in those hallowed waters again and to share it with three friends who hadn’t swam there before. The conditions were a little rough but nothing I haven’t been in dozens of times before.  All of us were strong swimmers with varied levels of experience in open water. We swam in a group for safety reasons, and we had bright colored swim buoys that we dragged behind us so we could be seen by boats and have them as flotation devices if needed. As we went out, one of the swimmers started to become labored and out of breath. He and I stayed back while the others decided to go forward. We made our way to a small buoy and treaded water for a few minutes to catch our breath. After a few minutes, he was still gasping for air. He looked scared. I went into strategy mode. How can I help calm him down? I started to share some stories from past adventures to try to distract him. If it didn’t calm him down, I hoped that he would be so sick of me talking he would be able to push through to get back to shore. Suddenly, with a panicked look, he said, “Brett, I need help. I can’t catch my breath. I need to be rescued.” Swimming in open water is unpredictable and potentially dangerous for anyone – even experienced swimmers. I started to access my water rescue training from my years as a triathlon coach. Thoughts instantaneously started going through my head: How far away is the pier? One-third of a mile away? Can we breaststroke there together? Is the shore a little closer? But with that sea wall, would rescue be nearly impossible? I began yelling and waving to try to attract attention from the shore, the dock and the other two swimmers in our group. Suddenly, with a desperate look on his face, he said to me, “I need help, I can’t breathe, I can’t catch my breath, help me!” I swam closer to him as his eyes rolled up into the back of his head. Within seconds, his lips turned blue as he lost consciousness. I got under his lifeless body and did my best to keep his head above water. The two other swimmers appeared. I yelled in an urgent voice that we needed to be rescued. They quickly swam toward the pier and attracted the attention of a boat. The boat fired up its engine and quickly made it out to us. There were two people on the boat. I pushed my friend up so they could grab him but he was too big for the two on the boat to pull him up, so I climbed aboard, and we got his lifeless body on the back deck. I started CPR. I desperately pumped his chest. Water exited his trachea with every pump.  How did he ingest so much water and never exhibit a protective choking reflex? Come on BREATHE!  He had been unconscious for several minutes. I moved enough water out of his lungs, and he began breathing again on his own. I turned him to his side and watched his chest move up and down while we waited for the EMTs to arrive. He was still unconscious, but he continued to breathe. He was rushed to the hospital. His chest x-ray showed 70% of his lungs were filled with seawater. He spent the next few days in the ICU.

I am grateful to say he is alive and well. No brain damage, his body recovered and he is back to normal. Thank goodness! When he was sent home from the hospital, the four of us got together to celebrate his survival and share our recollections of the near tragedy. I don’t remember a lot. My only explanation was that I was in hyperfocus mode to do whatever was necessary to save our friend – I blacked out a lot of events during that period. As we collectively shared our recollections and put together a timeline of what happened, we all recognized the presence of something much larger than ourselves that helped us all play a part in his rescue. A bond that was strong before this event now is indelibly etched in ways that only survivors can understand. We all witnessed the power of the universe and how fragile life can be. As the days moved forward, I found myself somewhat disconnected and emotionally flat. I became filled with guilt. My thoughts drifted to blaming myself for being irresponsible as we shouldn’t have been swimming in rough water. It was hard for me to focus as this event consumed my thoughts. I didn’t know what to think. And more importantly, I didn’t know what to do. I had been involved with tragedies twice before. The first was in 2009. I was running along the beach at sunrise, and I saw what I thought was a seal that was resting near the shore. I ran toward it and noticed it was the body of a deceased female. I helped pull her out of the water onto the shore. There was no saving her. Her body was cold and bloated from the water. The second was a few years ago. I was driving to work, and traffic was unexpectedly backed up. People were getting out of their cars and walking toward the intersection. I put the car in park and followed the other drivers to see what the holdup was. In the intersection was a cyclist on the ground gasping for air in a pool of his own blood. One of the Samaritans cradled him as he was gasping for air. He was hit by a car. The driver left the scene of the accident. He passed away a few hours later at the hospital. These two tragedies that I witnessed and buried came back to the forefront of my thoughts in a recollection so vivid it was as if they had just happened. I could no longer stuff down my emotions. Even though my friend survived and was thriving, I didn’t know what to do with my thoughts. I needed help. And I sought help. The Colorado Dental Association has a program available to members and our household members that grants us five free counseling sessions for any event (and per life event) that could derail us emotionally. I used this program for my counseling. I went online and filled out some forms. Within a day, they sent me a list of three licensed therapists who were deemed a good match. I called each of them and chose the one I felt most comfortable with. The counseling helped me process these traumas. Within a few sessions, I was able to gain insight into how my brain processed these events. I learned that my “blackout” was a protective measure that my brain used to protect me in the moment. But these protective coping mechanisms can come back in deleterious ways. I will never forget these events. I had my five free telehealth sessions where I gained insight on how my brain processed these traumas while I picked up tools to use as I navigate forward. I continue to work with this licensed counselor on my own to help me in other areas of my life productively. I am grateful for the CDA for these resources to help me when I needed it most. I’m a big advocate for seeking help but I personally never expected to use this benefit. If you or anyone you know is struggling, please take advantage of this amazing FREE member benefit! Tomorrow is probable but not guaranteed. Therefore, we must live our best lives today (and every day)!