By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – Jill and Jason Singer left their Cottonwood Crossings condo for a bike ride just before noon on July 9. Estimating the ride to Spanish Peaks down to Yellow Mule wouldn’t take more than an hour, they left their younger children, Elijah, 4, and Ethan, 10, in the care of their eldest child, Isaac, 12.
By the time they reached the top of the switchbacks on Ousel Falls Trail, it had started raining, so they decided to head home. Jason went ahead, dipping down onto the gravel roadside path. Shortly thereafter, he stopped and put his foot down.
When Jill caught up, he told his wife he felt really light-headed.
“Then he crouched down on one knee,” Jill said. “I got off my bike and put my hand on his face and asked if he was okay … Then someone stopped and asked if we needed help.”
By the time Jill turned back to her 41-year-old husband, he was unable to respond.
“It looked like he was choking or having a seizure,” Jill said. “It was like he was drowning … saliva was coming out of his mouth, his face was contorted, and then he just fell over.”
Jill remembers jumping up and screaming “help” and for someone to call 911.
First on the scene was a young woman, only recently identified as Rachel Lee, a 26-year-old orthopedic nurse from St. Louis, Missouri, who was vacationing in Big Sky. Lee and her parents, brother and sister-in-law—four of whom are in the medical field—had just finished hiking Ousel Falls and were driving away when they saw a man crumpled facedown next to his bike.
Moments later, a bicyclist the Singers had passed on the trail earlier pulled up and offered assistance. Jill didn’t know it at the time, but it was Kevin Budd, a former ski patroller and volunteer firefighter, and current member of Big Sky Search and Rescue.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, thank God,’” Jill said. Later, Budd’s face would be the only one she would clearly remember from the crowd.
When Budd arrived, Lee declared Jason cyanotic—or turning blue from lack of oxygen—and pulseless.
Having determined it wasn’t a crash, they flipped him over and Budd immediately began chest compressions, while Lee showed Jill how to administer CPR, which had to be done through Jason’s nose because his mouth was clamped shut. Then Lee and Budd took turns carrying out the laborious chest compressions while they waited for an ambulance to arrive.
Budd and Lee were able to get Jason to start breathing intermittently, but he remained unresponsive.
“I kept thinking of my kids’ faces and thinking, ‘Please don’t die; please don’t die,’” Jill said.
In a daze, Jill watched as the ambulance attendants delivered automated external defibrillator (AED) shocks to her husband’s chest before escorting him to Big Sky Medical Center where he finally regained consciousness.
Jason, a victim of cardiac arrest, was taken to Billings St. Vincent in an air ambulance as soon as the stormy weather allowed for transport. He was relocated to Billings Women’s Health Clinic, where he underwent successful pacemaker replacement surgery on July 11. His new pacemaker will automatically shock his heart back into rhythm if necessary. By July 12, Jason was back home in Big Sky recuperating.
Almost exactly one year ago, Jason had a pacemaker installed after a routine check-up revealed an abnormally low heart rate that was likely contributing to his complaints of fatigue. His energy levels improved after the pacemaker insertion. Rigorous testing found no ailment with his heart, but did detect sarcoidosis—inflammatory cells that clump together to form abnormal masses—in Jason’s lungs.
Although they haven’t been given a definitive cause for Jason’s cardiac arrest—low potassium levels and dehydration were also factors—the Singers are beginning to believe that the sarcoidosis may be related to the electrical glitch in his heart.
After having their third child in Minneapolis, the Singers made a break to get out of the big city. They have been living in Big Sky for two years, where Jill works at Lotus Pad, and Jason for Total Electric.
If it wasn’t already, the experience alongside Ousel Falls Road might have clinched Big Sky as the Singers’ permanent home.
“Honestly, this situation has been so cathartic … The timing of all it, if [Jason] would’ve keeled over anywhere else but where he did, with anyone else around, he wouldn’t be here and I know it,” Jill said. “All of those small things kind of added up to everything being okay in the end.”
Jill said she’s been overwhelmed by the community’s response to her family’s situation, which has included offers to bring over food and a flood of concerned comments online. She’s especially touched given the relatively short time they’ve here. “To be embraced like that is pretty amazing.”
From the hospital, Jill posted an item on the Big Sky Area Online Garage Sale Facebook page with a $10 trillion price tag. She was asking for help in locating the two people who were crucial during her husband’s crisis. “You, without a doubt, saved his life,” she wrote. “My three boys and I thank you from the bottoms of our hearts.”
Big Sky being a small community, it didn’t take long for Budd to chime into the thread and say he had been one of the people to administer CPR.
“It was just dumb luck [that we were both there],” Budd says of the incident. “[Especially] when you think about how many other choices we both made that day that led us to both be there at the same time.”
Budd is a little uncomfortable with the attention he’s received for his role in the incident and stresses the importance of Lee’s presence, as well as Jill’s.
“If they didn’t step in, who knows? Without them, it might not have been as happy an ending,” Budd said, adding that he’d never been so happy to see firefighter Mitch Hammel and captain Stephen Pruiett as he was when they arrived on the scene.
Neither Lee nor Budd had ever performed CPR on a live person in need before, and both mentioned CPR’s notoriously poor success rate.
“It was just an act of God, honestly,” Lee said.
Jill might not have found Lee, if Lee and her family weren’t also curious about what had happened after Jason was taken away in the ambulance. While shopping in the Big Horn Center, Lee’s mother and sister-in-law asked potter Jill Zeidler if she knew of any recent medical incidents. Zeidler relayed the story and put Lee in touch with her friends, the Singers.
Try as Budd may to dodge the spotlight, it’s unlikely the outpouring of gratitude he’s received from the Singers, and their friends and family, will stop any time soon.
“I don’t know how I can ever thank Kevin,” Jill said. “I just keep thinking about our kids, seeing their three faces, and thinking how could they live without their dad? … I know a lot of people do it, but they need their dad.”