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Amazing Recovery Boy Surprises Everybody After Nearly Drowning

Wed., July 3, 1996

By all accounts, Seth Wagner should have died.

The 15-year-old Wilbur, Wash., boy slipped under the water June 9 as he tried to swim to an island on Banks Lake, near Grand Coulee Dam. He clawed and grabbed at his stepbrother, almost dragging him under.

When Seth was pulled out of the 53-degree water, he didn’t have a pulse. He wasn’t breathing. He went without oxygen for at least 25 minutes.

Rescuers thought Seth might die of hypothermia. Doctors told the family he wouldn’t make it. Family members prepared for the worst.

“At 5 o’clock that Sunday night, he wasn’t given another hour to live,” said Rusanne Wagner, Seth’s stepmother.

On Tuesday, his last day of outpatient treatment, Seth looked like he had hours to spare as he tooled around on a mountain bike outside St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute. He’s now collecting adjectives like he’s collected boxes of Legos - “amazing,” “tremendously lucky,” and “hall-of-famer.”

Seth is rocketing through recovery.

After being rescued, he spent only 12 days at Sacred Heart Medical Center, going from failing lungs, kidneys and heart to eating Arby’s food in his hospital room.

On Tuesday, the lanky teenager in jeans and a George Strait T-shirt fidgeted in his chair and answered questions with shrugs or single words. He doesn’t want to talk about nearly drowning.

“I don’t think about it,” Seth said.

He also doesn’t remember it, a weeklong chunk of his life erased by the trauma. Therapists say his recovery is amazing, marred by endurance problems, a slight cough and possible short-term memory loss. Seth will be tested further before starting school.

“He hasn’t changed a bit,” said Seth’s mother, Denise Lincoln.

Pessimistic doctors and nurses worried Seth could die or suffer permanent brain damage.

“Our jaws dropped when he flew through this thing,” said Dr. Gary Lee, a pediatrician who treats critical-care patients at Sacred Heart. “We just couldn’t believe it.”

It started the weekend of June 8, when Seth and his two older brothers went camping at Steamboat Rock State Park about 80 miles west of Spokane.

Seth and stepbrother Shawn Crim, 23, wanted to spend time with brother Sean Wagner, 18, before he left for college in Phoenix. Crim’s girlfriend, Darlene Dixon, and her two daughters were also there.

“I remember a few things - some stuff from dinner,” Seth said. “We had steak and baked potatoes. I couldn’t eat my baked potato because it wasn’t done.”

That Sunday morning, the older campers decided to swim to an island about 70 yards away. Less than halfway, Seth started to struggle. Crim tried to rescue him, but Seth panicked. He went under.

Crim dove to get Seth, who fought and grabbed at Crim.

Crim broke free and swam back to shore. He grabbed a flotation device and swam back out to where Seth had been.

One of Dixon’s daughters started shouting and ran to the boat launch, where four Tri-Cities men were pulling their two bass boats out of the water. Chuck Chambers and Dan Dickey started running to the swimming area.

They grabbed an inner tube and swam out to Crim. Steve Prentice and Frank Chambers rushed over in the boats. The boats started circling, and the men started looking down.

“I saw him,” Dickey said. “He was spread out, like a cross.”

The men pulled Seth out. He had already been under for at least 20 minutes, witnesses say. When they brought Seth to the shore, Park Ranger Robert Ingram pulled up in his truck.

“His eyes were open,” Ingram said. “His pupils were fixed. He was dead. He was limp. He was white. He was dead, and that’s all I can say. It’s just a miracle that he’s alive, let alone that he’s alive and doing this well.”

The bass fishermen started CPR, which they all knew well. Prentice is an ex-surfer and former pre-med student. Dickey is a retired Army major. Chuck Chambers is a retired Pasco police officer.

Ingram coached them, in between radioing for help. After about 15 minutes, Seth started breathing.

The ambulance took him to Coulee Community Hospital. He was then flown to Sacred Heart, where he seemed stable. Then the problems started - lungs, kidneys and a heart that began to fail.

Lee and others decided to treat Seth with Surfactant - a drug normally given to premature babies to open their lungs. It was an expensive gamble. Seth’s much larger doses cost $8,000.

“We’ve never done anything like that before,” Lee said. “The reason it worked for him is because his lung injuries were caused by the amount of water. It rushed in and washed away the lung coating. Surfactant replaced it.”

Seth was released June 21.

He went home to his computer games, a sagging basketball hoop and a roomful of Legos. Ingram visited Seth two days later, and the teenager was mowing the lawn. He’s hoping to play football at Wilbur High this fall. He wants to go camping again with his brothers.

“He is a tremendously lucky kid to be alive,” Lee said. “We see these only once in a while. These kids end up having changed lives. They know there’s a reason to be alive.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos Map of Steamboat Rock State Park area

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