Former Lifeguard Saves Stepfather On Land

Emphasizes Importance of CPR Training

By Michael Popke (for the Association of Aquatic Professionals)

Google “local woman saves stepfather with CPR,” and you’ll receive a surprising number of results — each of them a touching story.

But, if you’re in the aquatics industry, one of them will stand out among the others.

Rachel Nelson was a lifeguard in college, but her biggest save came at age 26 while visiting with family at her childhood home in Farmington, Wis. — about 40 miles due west of Milwaukee.

At a picnic dinner with extended family after a day of boating on a gorgeous mid-July Friday, Nelson’s stepfather, Curtis Vorpahl, began acting strangely.

“All of a sudden, I noticed his head was tilted to the side, and he started making a snoring noise,” Nelson recalls. “I thought, ‘Did he just fall asleep in the middle of a conversation?’”

Then Vorpahl, 59, began choking and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. Nelson checked his pulse and couldn’t find one. Someone called 9-1-1, and then Nelson’s lifeguard instincts kicked in. 

“Everybody else sort of stepped back and panicked, and I knew from my lifeguard training that panic was the last thing I needed to do,” she says. “We were able to get him on the deck, and I started compressions to get blood flowing back to his heart, because that’s the most important thing you can do.”

When first responders arrived on the scene, they gave Nelson a pocket mask to safely deliver rescue breaths, and later EMTs used an automated external defibrillator on Vorpahl.

“I did compressions for about five to 10 minutes, and it felt like forever,” Nelson says. “Since I was the one who started the compressions, I kept going until I was exhausted.”

Today, Vorpahl has completely recovered from what was classified by doctors as a cardiac arrest incident, albeit one with no determined cause. He has no lingering physical damage, which makes him “insanely lucky,” Nelson says.

Although he never suffered from cardiac issues in the past and had recently received “a clean bill of health,” according to Nelson, Vorpahl — a tool and die machinist in West Bend, Wis. — now has a pacemaker and an AED implanted in his chest. 

One of the first responders later told Nelson that Vorpahl likely would not have survived without her fast thinking and confident actions.

Remarkably — after making hundreds of water rescues between 2011 and 2015 as a lifeguard at three different aquatics facilities and later working jobs that require regular CPR re-certification — Nelson says she never once was required to put her CPR training to use in a lifesaving situation.

But when that time came, and when she least expected it, she was ready.

 “I told myself I had to put my emotions to the side and focus on the job at hand,” she says about saving her stepfather’s life. “You can’t really think about who the person is.”

Now, Nelson (who also swam competitively in high school) says she wants to share her story with other lifeguards and pool facility operators. She plans to contact pool managers at the aquatic facilities where she worked in her late teens and early 20s and offer to speak with their current team of lifeguards, emphasizing how the skills they learn and use today also can be critical later in life.

“I feel that the skills you learn as a lifeguard can definitely transfer to other situations and jobs,” she says. “If you’re a former lifeguard, consider taking a refresher CPR course and get re-certified.”

Nelson also encourages people who don’t know CPR to take a class through a local American Red Cross chapter or another organization. More workplaces should offer training, too, she suggests.  

“A lot of incidents like this happen in the workplace,” she says. “Providing education to employees is achievable, and prior knowledge of the skill also could be taken into consideration more seriously during the hiring process.”

Nelson is a residential care specialist for young adults with depression and mood disorders at Rogers Behavioral Health, a not-for-profit provider of mental health and addiction treatment in Oconomowoc, Wis. Her position at the facility requires her to maintain her CPR certification on a regular basis.

“The biggest message I can send to others is to take the time to do the training, and then don’t be afraid to use those skills,” Nelson says, adding that Good Samaritan laws offer legal protection to people who give reasonable assistance, such as CPR, to people in danger. “This skill extends beyond lifeguarding and can be used to keep your loved ones safe. You never know when you’ll need it.”

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Juliene Hefter

Juliene is the Executive Director/CEO of AOAP. She has a background in running and operating diverse aquatic facilities and venues and is a national and international speaker on a variety of topics. She is also an expert witness/consultant.

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