Tanya Leibel had just witnessed evidence of humanity at its worst when she received a very personal reminder of humanity at its best.
Last month, 66-year-old Port Moody woman was in her hotel room in Krakow, Poland after visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp, where more than 1.1 million prisoners were exterminated during the Second World War, when she got an unexpected call on her cellphone.
That call would connect her to the person who had saved her life.
A year before Leibel took a bucket list tour of Europe that also included stops to see the Churchill War Rooms museum in London and Anne Frank’s home in Amsterdam, she was just another Tri-City resident hiking the Coquitlam Crunch. It was a dreary spring day and her son-in-law, Chris Langridge, had just passed her on the stairs, dialled into the music on his headphones, when she suddenly felt dizzy.
Leibel had been climbing the Crunch’s stair section three times a week for about a year, so she was confident her fitness wasn’t flagging.
Then she felt pressure on her chest and her arm went numb.
“I knew I was in trouble,” Leibel said this week.
She called to Langridge up ahead but he couldn’t hear her because of the headphones. She waved her arms and he happened to glance back, seeing her distress.
He sprinted down to Leibel and called 911.
She sat on a rock, then passed out.
Just below them on that day, Tammy Bryant, 58, was on an exercise break from her job driving school buses for First Student Canada, chatting and solving the world’s problems with a friend, when she saw Leibel slip from her perch. The women ran up to her.
Bryant, who just two days earlier had completed her CPR recertification program as required by her job, leaped into action. She placed her favourite foul-weather jacket on the ground to protect Leibel from the rain-soaked earth, then began assessing her unexpected patient.
“I thought she was having a seizure,” Bryant said.
But when Langridge told her he thought his mother-in-law was having a heart attack, Bryant said she “put into motion what we had just learned.”
She applied steady, rhythmic compressions to Leibel’s chest as she hummed the Bee Gees' disco hit “Staying Alive” because that’s what her instructors had advised.
“I had the cadence and rhythm, and that’s all I concentrated on,” Bryant said.
After about 12 minutes, first responders from Coquitlam Fire and Rescue arrived and took over. BC Ambulance paramedics arrived and applied a defibrillator twice, then loaded Leibel into their ambulance.
That was the last Bryant saw of the woman she knew only as Tanya. Subsequent calls to Eagle Ridge and Royal Columbian hospitals, as well as Coquitlam RCMP, failed to turn up any information about Leibel's fate because of privacy laws.
Bryant and her friend often chatted about that day on their subsequent hikes but they eventually became resigned to the likelihood they would never know whether Leibel had survived. They just resolved that she had lived and that was that, Bryant said, adding, “It was over and forgotten about and seldom mentioned again.”
Until this spring.
That's when Bryant’s son and his girlfriend were halfway up the Crunch when they spied a handwritten sign affixed to some construction fencing just below Lansdowne Drive. It read: “Did you save my life with CPR here? Please call me. Would love to thank you.”
After she passed out on the rock, Leibel has no memory of what happened next. She was transported to RCH in New Westminster, where Dr. Albert Chan, a cardiologist, installed two stents to overcome blockages in her coronary arteries. She recovered from surgery in the hospital’s intensive care unit. Family gathered, her son flew in from Iraq, where he works in the oil fields.
“I was confused by all these people around my bed,” Leibel said.
Five or six days later, she went home, where her daughter lives in the basement suite and was able to care for her as well as take over tending to Leibel’s husband, who has dementia.
Leibel reflected on the circumstances that got her back to familiar environs, back to the embrace of her family.
“It was a master class in organization, precision and professionalism,” Leibel said. “Everyone did everything perfectly.”
When Leibel was able, she visited the fire hall to thank the Coquitlam firefighters who’d tended to her. She thanked Dr. Chan, too.
“But nobody knew who the lady was who saved me,” she said.
Life carried on. Then, as the first anniversary of her second chance approached, Leibel reinvigorated her effort to fill in the blanks of her survival story.
She put up the sign just before embarking on her European trip because “it’s a big deal to save someone’s life.”
“It really centres you and focuses you on what’s important,” she said of her brush with mortality and the rush of circumstances that brought her back. “Kindness has always been the ultimate gift — it has a ripple effect.”
Bryant said when her son and his girlfriend told her about the sign and its location, she knew she was the person its author was seeking. But she was too afraid to make the call herself and kept putting it off. It was her son’s girlfriend who was on the other end of the line when Leibel picked up her phone in that hotel room in Poland.
Once the details were confirmed, they arranged a connection for when Leibel returned from her trip. The patient and her rescuer met in person recently at the Tim Horton’s not far from the base of the Crunch.
“It was very emotional, overwhelming,” Leibel said.
“It’s up there with the birth of your first child,” Bryant said. “It was wonderful.”
For Leibel, her gratitude knows no bounds: Bryant not only saved her life but also spared her family the pain and heartache of her absence, she said.
For Bryant, meeting Leibel not only means the story of that day continues happily but it also confirms the importance of knowing a life-saving skill like CPR.
“I needed to know whether it worked,” she said. “I needed the affirmation. It was easy to save a life.”
The city of Port Moody is offering a free CPR awareness session next Wednesday, May 16, 1 to 3 p.m., at the Inlet Centre fire hall. Advance registration is required; go to www.portmoody.ca. The Red Cross and St. John Ambulance offer first aid and CPR training programs, as do several private companies. Go to www.redcross.ca, www.sja.ca, or Google “CPR training Coquitlam.”