Arenas are full of teams Jamie Schpak doesn’t play on, but she was on the life-saving team that kept one Prince George man’s heart beating after suffering a cardiac arrest.
Schpak, born and raised in Quesnel, has worked at the Prince George arena complex for years. It is a job full of routine. She wasn’t following it, that April afternoon in 2021, and that may have been what saved the life of Gord Fairbairn.
Fairbairn, 65 at the time, is a member of the locally famous oldtimers hockey team the Rusty Nuts. He wasn’t following routine, either, or at least conventional wisdom. He parked at the farthest end of the complex by the 4-H barns and PG Minor Hockey office, rather than any of the other closer doors to the Kin 3 arena where the Rusty Nuts had a game. It forced Fairbairn to walk the full length of the four-arena facility.
When he exited the building and was heading for his vehicle, he had a major heart attack. Medical analysis later confirmed it was the severe kind commonly called The Widow-Maker. In that split second, Fairbairn’s wife was about to be next on that list of widows. He has no memory of it, but he dropped to the pavement and landed on his face, breaking teeth and bloodying his mouth. He was making sounds, his eyes were open, but he was unconscious almost to the point of death.
Passerby Katie Kelly happened to see him fall, raced to his side, called 911 and could do little else. That’s when Schpak changed the narrative and in all probability the outcome.
Although names are rarely exchanged, regular athletes in the Kin Centre / CN Centre complex are often on familiar terms with the “rinkies” and Schpak indeed remembers smiling hello to Fairbairn and telling him to “have a good day” as he headed for his vehicle. She remembers, too, that she thought it odd he would be parked so far from the convenient entrances. Fairbairn, looking back, also has no idea why he did that. But it was one more thing that played a lifesaving role in the chain of events.
The entrance at the farthest north end, you see, has sliding glass doors. Glass that Schpak could see through as she walked by on a route she never takes in that rink maintenance routine.
“I was just leaving Kin 1 going to Kin 3 to do their flood, because they had just finished. And it was weird because usually I do the floods right away, but that day I knew I had some time, so I went a different way for another thing I thought I should do first. Just the fact that I was already there where I usually wouldn’t have been, and then that lady seeing him fall…”
Schpak’s first aid training and professional thinking kicked in. She ran to help Kelly, but the two could not maneuver the unconscious weight of Fairbairn. While doing so, she radioed for colleague Onkar Parmar to come help.
Across the parking lot she spotted snowplow driver Jason Force, whom she had never met but saw he was in a City of Prince George vehicle so quickly gestured him to come over. In the ensuing action, another hockey volunteer and member of the Rusty Nuts, Mark Barlow, also came to help.
Together, with instructions from the 911 operator, they moved Fairbairn into a better position and began CPR. Barlow, meanwhile, was sent on the run to get one of the arena’s AED machines, a defibrillator in a suitcase, with instructions so clear and easy it walks you through the process.
Firefighters arrived just as Barlow returned. They had an AED, too, slapped it on Fairbairn, and hit the button.
“He had no heartbeat, nothing, so they shocked him,” Schpak said. “Still no heartbeat, so they shocked him again, nothing, shocked him, and they did that at least three or four times.”
Unlike the movies, Fairbairn did not sputter back to life. The firefighters and paramedics just kept working their CPR magic until he was in the ambulance and rolling to the hospital. “There’s nothing that prepares you for the real situation,” Schpak said.
Something else she and Parmar weren’t prepared for was the deafening silence that followed. Schpak said they got wind that Fairbairn – they didn’t even know his name – had been flown to Vancouver, but had no idea if he lived or died.
More than a year later they got their answer when Fairbairn reached out for introductions, at the urging of the Rusty Nuts, with whom he was playing hockey again after a full recovery. He is also a BMX bike racer, and back doing that, again, too.
“All along I’d wanted to meet these people, I just didn’t know how to go about getting it done,” Fairbairn said. “I was pretty happy to meet them, and they were pretty happy to meet me, too, actually. It was just great that it was a happy ending. They were worried about what happened to me – did I do the right thing? – but yes, it all turned out well in the long run.”
His daughter reached out to Schpak and the other lifesavers saying “I just want to thank you a million times.”
Schpak replied to her “he definitely had angels watching over him; it was not his time to go. Just, so many things that lined up for him.”
She and the other lifesavers were presented with coveted Rusty Nuts jerseys as tokens of the event.
“It was my lucky day, that’s for sure,” said Fairbairn, who now pays a little extra attention around public places and urges everyone else to do the same.
“I wasn’t really aware of the defibrillators. I knew they had them in the rinks, but if I had to run get one, I would have been at a loss,” Fairbairn said. “Now I know exactly where they are. The whole team knows, and how to use them. The first step is where to find them in a hurry. And they are all over town. They should be more noticeable.”
He thinks people should also maintain a feeling of wanting to help, because had any one thing in his sequence of rescue gone differently, the consequences could have been tragic. “Doing something is better than doing nothing, even if you aren’t sure about it,” Fairbairn confirmed.
“Yes, we definitely have AEDs in all our facilities,” confirmed Quesnel’s recreation manager Richard Gauthier, who was proud of Schpak and excited for the public to know just how easy and effective these Automated External Defibrillators are to use. “Here is the list.”
– West Fraser Centre Arena: located just inside the sliding doors as you enter the lower floor arena. Kept there so the public can easily grab it, but also players if anyone had a cardiac episode while playing.
– Arena 2: Located near the concession, leisure patch, ice surface and the seating area. Again easy to grab and locate, if necessary.
– Arts & Recreation Centre: located in our medical first aid room just off the pool deck. Lifeguards have a process in place to deal with any first aid situation in and out of our facility, including cardiac arrest.
– Soccer Facility: Located on the north wall of the facility easily accessible to all if required.
– City Hall: located in the lobby area.
– Airport: In the main terminal, just outside the security area.