‘It happens anywhere:’ Petaluma responders praised for CPR save

Angelica Rivas was stretching one of her clients when a fellow City Sports Club trainer, Matthew Eckerson, called her attention to a gym member that had just collapsed.

Rivas, 30, had taken first responder training courses at Santa Rosa Junior College, and surprisingly that Wednesday morning in July at the North McDowell Boulevard facility wouldn’t be her first time resuscitating a stranger.

Down a nearby hallway, Dave Cassetta, 41, was walking out of the locker room, covered with sweat in the middle of his workout as he walked up to the unfolding scene.

The unconscious man, who was not identified for this story, had just experienced sudden cardiac arrest, and the heroic efforts that followed that day saved his life.

Rivas and Cassetta each received a Golden Heart Award last week, a joint honor from the Petaluma Health Care District and Petaluma Fire Department that recognizes community members that rescue others and also promote heart health.

Making Petaluma a “HeartSafe Community” is one of the core initiatives of the healthcare district, an effort to train and certify businesses, schools and residents on CPR while increasing access to defibrillators. Combined, people are three times more likely to survive sudden cardiac arrest, which, along with cardiovascular disease, remains the leading cause of death in the U.S.

“People think it doesn’t happen, but it happens anywhere, at any age, at any time,” said district CEO Ramona Faith.

By the time Cassetta, a former firefighter and certified EMT for 22 years, saw what was going on that mid-summer morning, the defibrillator was already in use. Cassetta then recalled hearing “shocked advised,” and he immediately knew chest compressions were going to be the only thing that kept the unconscious gym-goer alive.

Just days into his latest EMT certification training, which Cassetta still does every two years even though he now works for Kendall-Jackson, he instinctively sprang into action and started applying compressions.

Rivas emerged with a resuscitator mask and began giving the man breaths. Together, in that crucial window before first responders arrived, they performed life-saving CPR that lasted nearly six minutes.

Two electric shocks were delivered through the AED, but it was their efforts to manually provide oxygen and physically pump his heart that kept his blood flowing and protected the man from suffering brain damage - or worse.

Without it, he could have been another one of the nearly 90% of victims that die from cardiac arrest before they reach a hospital.

“When someone is on the ground for so long, I’m like, ‘Oh god, is he braindead? Did we do more harm than we actually did any good?’?” Rivas said. “It was kind of nerve-wracking for me,” but a few months later, “when I found out that he was well, I cried.”

When the fire department arrived, they asked Cassetta to keep providing chest compressions since he had established a good rhythm. He joked his arms hurt for three days after that.

Eventually, the man regained consciousness and the paramedics were able to provide medicine and take him to the hospital where he survived.

Afterward, as one might expect from a former first responder that had spent decades in those situations, “I washed my hands and finished my workout,” Cassetta said.

What struck the duo the most that day was the stunned crowd that surrounded them, helplessly watching as someone’s life was being fought for.

About half of Americans know how to perform CPR, but less than a third of victims in a cardiac event actually receive help from a bystander.

“At the end of the day, everybody deserves a chance,” Rivas said. “Not many people want to help, and I think that’s not right.”

Jeff Schach, Petaluma’s Deputy Fire Chief, said it simply requires a little courage. He is hopeful the upcoming workshops later this fall will allow more residents to gain some fluency and confidence to act during those vital minutes before first responders get there.

“You don’t have to be firefighter to be a hero,” he said. “If you know CPR, if you’re not afraid, those AEDs walk you through it. There’s pictures. We teach kids how to do it.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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