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Hero Sunday, hospitalized Monday: Fall City man rescues rafter, suffers heart attack

Friends Lisa Sweet, left, and Russell Holl sit at the Snoqualmie River RV Park and Campground. Holl and his neighbors saved a young woman from a river accident in August; he suffered a heart attack the following day. - Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo
Friends Lisa Sweet, left, and Russell Holl sit at the Snoqualmie River RV Park and Campground. Holl and his neighbors saved a young woman from a river accident in August; he suffered a heart attack the following day.
— image credit: Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo

Russell Holl of Fall City has had a back-breaking week. His schedule so far has been as follows: Sunday, save a woman from drowning in a rafting accident; Monday, rush to hospital with a heart attack; Tuesday, more hospital; Wednesday, come home from the hospital with a new stent in chest.

"It was a little more excitement than I planned on," said the 45 year-old Thursday, after admitting he was still a little woozy from the past week.

Holl had just been planning on a sunny float down the Snoqualmie River Sunday afternoon, with some friend and neighbors from the Snoqualmie RV Park and Campground. His wife, Mary, wasn't on the trip, but the group of nine included Lisa Sweet and her husband, on their first-ever raft trip down the Snoqualmie.

Sweet recalled that the group had passed a huge warning sign draped over the river, and following the veteran rafters' advice, they got out of the water to walk past a dangerous pile of logs on the left side of the river.

Few other rafters took this precaution, and a group of four had gotten hung up on the logs, including one woman who was in real trouble.

"Her boyfriend was trying to help her, holding her head up, but she kept getting pulled under," Sweet said.

Holl didn't notice at first, he said, but then "(a neighbor) said 'That girl needs help. Go get her.'"

He'd never been involved in any kind of water rescue before, but he didn't hesitate to jump in and wade the 30 or 40 yards across the river, through waist-deep water.

"It's my weight," he explained. "I'm 6'2", and I weigh 240. All the other people were just standing there gawking, because they knew they'd be washed away."

He almost did, too, when he grabbed a branch to steady himself. He calls that his one mistake, because suddenly, his feet went out from under him. "I thought 'no, no, no!' and she was right there.... I still don't know how I got back down."

When he reached the struggling girl, he saw that her raft had deflated and was tangled in her legs. The extra drag was steadily pulling her under the logs.

"She was wearing a life vest, thank God," Sweet said, and Holl added, "It saved her life."

Holl heaved the girl up out of the tangle after a couple of tries, then started carrying her back across the river.

"He was about two-thirds of the way across the river when people realized he needed help," Sweet remembered.

Holl assumed he was just tired from the exertion, and welcomed the help from the girl's boyfriend in getting her onto the beach. Then he collapsed.

He didn't know it at the time, but he was having a heart attack -- his third one, and when EMTs arrived about 40 minutes later, he waved them off to take care of the girl.

Her name was Mackenzie, and she had just gotten out of a walking cast the day before. She was in shock and severe pain from damage to her knee, and all of Holl's concern was for her.

Two women in the group were nurses, and they urged him to get some medical attention, but he just wanted to go home. "My chest was killing me, but I swear I thought it was heartburn," he said.

Actually, it was a failing stent in his chest, inserted in 2007 after he had two consecutive heart attacks while working a job for the tree service he owns. This heart attack, though, was nothing like the first two.

In 2007, "My arm, it felt like I had a million ants biting it," Holl recalled. On Sunday, it felt like heartburn, so he went home and took lots of antacids, for the first time in his life. Sweet also told him to take some aspirin, just in case.

That night, he gradually started feeling better, and Holl said he rested all day Monday, so when the pain came back worse than ever that night, he knew it was time to see a doctor.

"The pain was overwhelming," he said.

While in the hospital, Holl learned that the stent had collapsed, and that he'd had two heart attacks in the last two days. Now that he's home again, he promises to never again ignore any potential heart attack symptoms, but he still wouldn't hesitate to do what he did on Sunday.

"Anyone who needs help is going to get my help, if I can do it. That's the way my Mom raised me," he said.

In King County, people are required to wear life vests while on or in the Snoqualmie, Tolt, Cedar, Green, White, Raging, and Skykomish Rivers, except in designated swimming areas. The penalty for not wearing a life vest is $86, but Sheriff's Deputies are issuing tickets only for repeat offenders. The life vest requirement expires October 31.

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