Coach’s heroics shows importance of CPR training

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CHICAGO -- It’s simple and it saves lives – still, some people just won’t jump in to do CPR. But two weeks ago, one swim coach made a real splash turning a potential tragedy into triumph.

Claire Luning, Walter Payton College Prep swimmer: “I was doing the butterfly in a relay …”

It was a typical practice for the Walter Payton High School swim team ... this video taken from the stands by the coach, Mac Varilla. But by the end of her leg, Claire Luning felt something was wrong – in the far lane the swimmer is still in the water clutching the rope.

Claire Luning: “I remember trying to grab on to the lane line and keep myself up. I was struggling to breathe, and I was breathing really hard and I felt dizzy and woozy.”

Just seconds after he turned off his camera … a call for help from the pool.

Coach Mac: I noticed that her eyes were wide open she was pale there was no breathing and no pulse

Coach Mac pulled Claire out of the water and directed his swimmers to call 9-1-1 and school administrators. Then, without hesitation, he went to work on Claire.

Coach Mac: “While they were getting help I started CPR.”

Claire was in cardiac arrest – her heart muscle had suddenly stopped contracting and was unable to pump blood to her body.

Coach Mac: “I began CPR. Three cycles in I noticed signs of life. I noticed breathing, pulse right away. I stopped and yelled to Claire, ‘If you can hear me blink.’”

Claire Luning: “Then the next thing I remember I was out of the pool and Mac was telling me to blink.”

Rushed by ambulance to Lurie Children’s, doctors stabilized her and diagnosed the 16-year-old with an underlying and silent heart defect called long QT syndrome – a condition that causes fast, chaotic heartbeats that can trigger fainting spells, seizures and, in some cases, sudden death.

Dr Dana Schinasi, Lurie Children’s Emergency Medicine: “I don’t think there’s a possibility he saved her life. I think, without question, Mac and Claire’s teammates saved her life.”

The scenario is rare, especially in young children and adults. Yet many times the outcome is tragic. Bystanders are often too intimidated to use a nearby AED or perform the simple actions that actually double survival chances if started before EMS arrives.

Dr Kendra Ward, Lurie Children’s cardiologist: “Study after study has shown the sooner you restore blood flow the better your outcomes. If you think it takes about four minutes for EMS to arrive, bystander CPR, use of an AED before that time saves lives and saves organs so they have normal function.”

Today, just two weeks after her cardiac arrest in the pool, Claire, her coach and doctors faced the media – ready to tell their story with the hope it will inspire others to take action.

Coach Mac: “No hesitation. No panic. It’s one of those things you know you’re trained, you just have to go with your gut. Don’t be afraid. That could be the difference between life and death.”

Claire Luning: “Mac is an amazing person. He’s a hero, he saved my life. I am so thankful that he was there, and I know I would not be here if he wasn’t.”

There is a law put into place after Lauren Laman died of cardiac arrest after collapsing during a high school dance practice. It requires all Illinois high school students to be trained in CPR. But providing those training materials has been a challenge with the state’s ongoing budget crisis. Now Illinois Heart Rescue has stepped in to make sure all students get the life-saving training. If you want to learn more about performing CPR, check out the following resources:

More info:

American Heart Association:

Red Cross:

Illinois Heart Rescue:

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