Ken Briggs is not religious, but after he collapsed near the end of a marathon a little more than a month ago, he’s convinced he has a guardian angel: Her name is Chelsea Peckham Vargas and she lives in Austin, Texas.
“She saved my life,” Briggs said.
The 64-year-old director of Spokane Valley Partners has more than 90 marathons under his belt, and he was so close to the finish line of the Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon near North Bend, that he could nearly see it.
“I was joking as I always do, running with friends,” Briggs said. When his foot began to hurt he figured it was because of a recent surgery and he decided to stop and massage it.
“I do remember getting dizzy and putting my hand on the ground,” Briggs said. “The next thing I know I’m looking up at a bunch of firefighters asking questions.” Briggs knew he fainted, but felt good enough to walk to the waiting ambulance that hauled him off for a check-up at a hospital in Bellevue.
“I was mostly just hungry and not quite sure what had happened,” Briggs said.
Reality hit deeply when he got a Facebook message from Vargas a few days later.
“Ken was maybe 100 meters ahead of me and I saw him squat down, then try to stand up but fall flat on his back,” Vargas said, on the phone from Austin. “When I got there he was seizing and his jaw was locked. Then he started turning blue.”
Vargas, who has worked as a nurse for a cardiac unit, rolled Briggs over on his left side and began doing CPR.
“I gave him two rescue breaths and he wasn’t breathing,” Vargas said. “Then I started doing chest compressions.” Other runners called 911 as Vargas and a friend continued the chest compressions.
“He suddenly gasped for air and I knew we had some circulation going,” Vargas said.
At that time a physician, who was also running the marathon, stopped to help and was able to find a pulse.
Briggs carries a runner ID that looks like a military dog tag. Someone dialed the number for Briggs’ wife, Lori Kinnear, who was home in Spokane where she’s running for City Council, and handed the phone to Vargas.
“I told her paramedics were there and that he was down on the trail,” Vargas said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like getting a call like that.”
Vargas said she gave a full report to paramedics, then finished the race with her friends.
“I’d never given CPR before but it was second nature,” Vargas said. “It was very emotional. I’m glad I was there.”
Briggs was reunited with Kinnear and family at the hospital and released after a seven-hour stay in the emergency room. He took some time to relax and spent the night, but drove home the following day and returned to work.
Briggs said he’s been through a full cardiac workup, including an ultrasound he jokes showed he’s not pregnant, and so far doctors haven’t found anything wrong.
“They call it sudden cardiac arrest,” Briggs said. “We just don’t know why it happened.”
He’s been back out running but is on a self-imposed sabbatical from long distance runs.
Briggs is a lanky, energetic and somewhat restless person.
At Valley Partners, staff has nicknamed him the jumping bean because he’s always moving between projects and places.
He has replaced his office chair with one of those large, yellow ergonomic rubber balls.
Since he began training for marathons at 52, running has helped lower his blood pressure and better handle the stress associated with managing the main social services organization in Spokane Valley on what he calls a shoestring budget.
“I can’t take undue chances. I have so much responsibility here,” he said, gesturing toward his office. “And to my wife, the love of my life. I can’t put her through another call like the one she got.”
He jokes about what happened, but the puns are a skimpy cover of the deep emotion he feels and the realization that this could have ended a lot worse.
“I stopped breathing. My heart stopped,” Briggs said. “I feel like I was under duress, but I don’t feel like I died.”
He’s struck up a Facebook friendship with Vargas, whom he hopes to meet in person at next year’s Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon so he can give her a big hug.
In the meantime, more diagnostics await at the cardiologist’s office.
Always a runner, he’s a little sore he didn’t finish the race.
“No pun intended, but I feel in my heart that I could have run over that finishing line,” Briggs said.
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