Late-night stop on freeway saves woman’s life

Thinking back, Dennis and Linda Larsen say the scary night on the side of the road seemed almost like a dream, or a scene from a black-and-white movie.

Sometimes they wonder if it even happened at all.

It did happen. Jerry Shuart, an officer with the Kittitas Police Department, remembers it vividly, although two months have passed since he met the Lake Stevens couple when they were helping an elderly woman on I-90 just east of Ellensburg.

“When I pulled up, Mr. Larsen was attempting CPR, and his wife was on the phone with our dispatch,” Shuart said Thursday. “She had no pulse,” the officer said of the elderly woman the Larsens were helping.

The Larsens still don’t know the name of the woman, or of her middle-aged son. They’ll never forget the moment they spotted a car parked sideways, with headlights shining, in the freeway median.

“At first I thought it was a speed trap,” said Dennis Larsen, 57.

It was after 1 a.m. on Sept. 19, and the Larsens were on their way to Priest River, Idaho, to help an elderly relative who’d been diagnosed with cancer. Linda Larsen remembers being nearly asleep in the passenger’s seat. “I saw something out of the corner of my eye and said, ‘Dennis, I think that’s a person,’” she said.

“As we passed, I saw someone come out of the dark waving his arms trying to flag us down,” her husband said. “I thought about not stopping. It could have been someone trying to rob us or hijack the van,” he said.

Setting fear aside, they stopped, then backed up on the freeway — Dennis Larsen thinks he backed his Chevy Astro about 2,000 feet. The man, they said, was out of breath, very upset and saying his mother was dead, that she’d had a heart attack.

Dennis Larsen is a special services technician for Verizon and his wife is a Verizon retiree. The company trained both of them in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Within moments of stopping, Linda Larsen had called 911. Her husband had the woman out of the car and was administering chest compressions.

“I put the 911 dispatch on speaker on my cell phone so I wouldn’t relay bad information,” Linda Larsen said.

Just minutes later, Shuart was there and had taken over the CPR effort. The 911 dispatcher also contacted the Washington State Patrol. Trooper Eric Seim, based in Ellensburg, arrived at the scene near Milepost 118 a couple miles east of Kittitas, according to trooper Rich Magnussen, a State Patrol spokesman.

Even with both officers there, Magnussen said the couple’s assistance “did make a big difference.” It was nothing less than the difference between life and death.

“If Mr. Larsen hadn’t stopped, that lady wouldn’t have survived,” Shuart said.

In the blur of it all, the Larsens drove away without getting the woman’s name. All they knew was that an ambulance from Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue arrived and took her away. Within two days, Shuart had called them with thanks and to assure them that the woman had been taken to the Kittitas Valley Community Hospital in Ellensburg. When she arrived, the officer said, her heart was beating.

Shannon Hill, a Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue human resources manager, said medical privacy laws don’t allow sharing the patient’s name. Hill said the woman was a 77-year-old from Goldendale, and that later on Sept. 19 she was moved to Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital.

Whether to stop or not in a similar situation is a tough call, Magnussen said. “It’s an individual decision by the motorist. In a lot of situations, we wouldn’t recommend people stopping,” he said.

“It’s nice that people do stop, but if they do they should call 911,” said Shuart. “There have been people who’ve done the same thing, flag you down, and end up stealing your car.”

The Larsens are left with a mystery, and a hope that the woman is well enough to spend Thanksgiving with her family.

“She was such a cute little lady, petite with a little white sweater and earrings. I’ll remember it the rest of my life,” Linda Larsen said.

“I never thought I’d need CPR,” her husband said. “I’m so glad it worked.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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