Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

Sheriff Travis Ash rushed to the Salmon Creek home of his friends Matt and Elsa Cunningham late Thursday morning and then rushed away with barely a word exchanged between them.

Ash left within minutes of his arrival driving the ambulance that carried the Cunninghams’ 22-month-old son, Matty, to the hospital.

“They said, ‘Travis drive,’ ” Ash said, so he followed the orders of the three Baker City Fire Department paramedics who focused their efforts on caring for Matty as Ash sped toward St. Alphonsus Health Care Center.

Paramedics Travis Fields, Ben Decker and Jason Bybee were on the ambulance crew called to respond to a report of a drowning on March 9. While the ambulance usually carries just two people, a third person was added to that run because of the drowning report, said Fire Chief Tom Wills.

“We wanted enough people to provide the ALS (advanced life support) care the baby needed,” Wills said.

A child victim also adds a new aspect to the rescue effort, he said.

“That has a more emotional and psychological effect, even for the most professional firefighters or paramedics,” Wills said.

The Cunningham family had been working outside and Matty had been out of sight for about 10 minutes before family members found him in the neighbor’s pond just across a barbed wire fence from their property about 11:30 a.m.

After calling 9-1-1 the Cunninghams began performing CPR on their son.

Ash said he arrived at the Cunninghams’ home just ahead of the ambulance and was prepared to take over CPR for the parents when paramedic Travis Fields knelt by his side.

“He grabbed the child and said ‘let’s get him to the ambulance,’ ” Ash said.

Baker Rural Fire District volunteers had yet to arrive, so Ash was recruited to drive the ambulance.

“It happened so fast and there was no one else,” Wills said. “Sheriff Ash has the training for driving Code 3 (with lights flashing and sirens sounding) so he was that natural fit to jump in and drive.”

Wills said everyone did their part that day to ensure the best outcome possible for Matty, who has recovered completely from his fall into the pond, according to his parents.

“It really was a team effort,” Wills said. “The family did their part, we did our part and the sheriff went above and beyond his part by driving the ambulance.”

Once in the ambulance, the paramedics immediately started an IV in Matty’s leg.

“A lot of times when a patient drowns you can get the patient’s heart beating and get him breathing again,” Wills said. “It wasn’t a surprise for the patient to be unconscious. He was still in critical condition and he could have slipped back at any time.

“They needed a line in place to administer drugs during the resuscitation effort if necessary,” he said.

Ash said at one point one of the ambulance crew members advised him to take it “slow and easy” as he drove along the bumpy driveway leading from the Cunninghams’ home, but otherwise he covered the 5 miles to the hospital as quickly and safely as possible.

Ash said he has driven ambulances in emergency situations in the past, and while it’s different than driving a patrol vehicle, he followed safety procedures.

“You can’t drive them like you drive a police car,” Ash said. “I slowed down for the corners because I didn’t want to throw them around.

“We don’t blow through intersections or cut in front of trains,” he said.

The only problem occurred once he arrived at the hospital where he discovered he didn’t know how to turn the siren off.

Ash said he is working with Wills to schedule an ambulance operation training for all of his employees.

The sheriff and his staff had received their annual CPR training just a week or two earlier from Chris Galiszewski, Red Cross volunteer.

In the four minutes it took him to drive from his home on Pine Creek to the Cunningham residence, Ash said he was reviewing the updated lessons he’d learned.

Ash said he had the opportunity to express his appreciation to Galiszewski for providing the training and encourages others to keep updated on CPR practices.

The sheriff also cautioned parents and other family members or caregivers about the danger of losing track of small children outdoors. This time of year is especially dangerous in areas where seasonal ponds are filling and creeks and rivers are running high, he said.

“It’s a reminder for folks about water safety,” Ash said. “This was a pond that fills only in the spring. Make sure that you’re aware (of nearby ponds, creeks and rivers) and make sure your child is aware.”