At one point during a recent morning surf session in Huntington Beach, a trio of friends joked about the lack of waves and small surf – but it was nice just to be out in the water, together, they all agreed.
But that feel-good moment came to an abrupt end when 26-year-old Chris Wessels’ tone turned, and he uttered: “I feel like I’m going to faint.”
Then he slumped over onto his surfboard. His heart had stopped.
Friends Jeffrey Weber and Shayla Bauer frantically paddled him to the sand, pleading with others to call 911.
Weber put his hands onto Wessels’ chest and pressed down. A scene from the popular television show “The Office” played in his head – in the episode, during a CPR class, actor Steve Carell pressed down on a dummy to the song “Stayin’ Alive” as a way to remember how to time the compressions.
“Ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive,” the beat racing through Weber’s mind with each chest compression.
Samantha Dellenoci and Wessels met while in college in Maryland. That was October 2019 and less than a year later, the pair moved to Orange County to start their lives together.
“We both had the California dream,” Dellenoci said. “Once we got here, we just made it our home.”
And part of that dream was learning to surf, hitting the waves two or three times a week between Newport Beach, Dana Point and San Onofre.
“We were just loving starting our day together in the ocean, that for us felt so spiritual,” she said. “It was just so grounding for us.”
The couple created a community here, meeting on Friday mornings at Blackies beach in Newport Beach with fellow surf enthusiasts, including Weber and Bauer, and making friends at Canopy Church in Costa Mesa.
The couple stayed active together, both running a half marathon in San Diego in December, exactly one month before Wessels’ heart stopped.
“He was in great shape and his heart withstood a half marathon,” Dellenoci said. “And then he’s out on his surfboard and his heart stops. It’s mind boggling.”
On a recent day driving to Hoag Hospital to visit his friend, Weber recounted that fateful Jan. 16 morning in Huntington Beach; they were surfing off the dog beach, a remote area tucked behind cliffs where lifeguard towers are spread far apart.
They were about 20 minutes into their surf session when Wessels passed out and had no pulse.
“We didn’t know if it was serious or what was happening initially,” Weber said. “We paddled toward him and realized quickly there was something wrong.”
Even with small waves, getting Wessels to shore wasn’t easy, Weber said. They managed to wedge him between their boards and paddled him to shore, screaming out to two young surfers “We need help, now!”
“The transition from getting someone on the board to the beach was the hard part. He was limp and heavy so it took us longer to get him out and out of the waves,” Weber recounted. “It was a really freaky moment.”
Weber had taken a CPR course in high school, and somehow instinct took over. Then, as he pressed down, the melody from “The Office” episode kicked in.
“Ah, ah ah ah, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…”
“Even though it was super serious, I had that ringing in my head,” he said.
“I can do this,” he remembers thinking.
Bauer was on the phone with lifeguards, the operator on the other line counting out the beats.
“We were spiraling, mentally, trying to realize what happened, there were so many thoughts in our brains,” Weber said. “A lady walking her dog and a man came up and they were just quick to be there and stop what they were doing to help.”
They took turns pumping onto Wessels’ chest until first responders showed up.
Weber never caught the passersby’s names, he simply gave them hugs before they parted ways on the sand as Wessels was rushed away in an ambulance.
“They helped save his life as much as we did in those moments before the first responders came,” he said. “That was the crazy thing, for strangers to come and help. We are super grateful for them.”
For Dellenoci, the kindness of others is what has been giving her comfort during the hard days since. Wessels was kept in a medically-induced coma for days, and then was on a ventilator, then slowly was able to give a peace sign.
His brain is foggy and slow, but he kisses Dellenoci on the cheek. He’s smiling and laughing. But even simple memories or tasks like walking and talking remain challenging.
“We have to be patient, but we are really hopeful with time and proper care and experts doing what they can that he will continue to make steps. We’re praying for a full recovery,” Dellenoci said. “It’s a crazy and horrible situation, but there’s been a lot of blessings along the way.”
Doctors still don’t have an explanation of why Wessels heart suddenly stopped. But it is clear that he will need much therapy and rehabilitation in the months, maybe years, to come, Dellenoci said.
He has been accepted into the Fudge Family Acute Rehab Center at Hoag Hospital, where he will get at least three hours of therapy, five days a week.
Friends set up a GoFundMe, already raising nearly $35,000 from the community to help toward what will no doubt be a pile of medical bills.
Wessels’ family recently met with every first responder who helped keep him alive that day, from paramedics to firefighters and lifeguards, thanking them for their part. They all said the same thing: Had Weber not started CPR right away, his friend would not be alive.
From the beach to the hospital, Wessels went without his own heartbeat for 45 minutes.
With so much unknown, Dellenoci had to cancel their big wedding planned for Feb. 24 overlooking the ocean at Casa Romantica, but hopes her fiance will be well enough to say “I do” during a small ceremony on that same day they picked to wed.
“My hope is to just marry the guy,” she said. “He is the love of my life.”
Whatever happens in coming days and months and years, she wants the people who have helped them on their journey to know they have made a difference.
“We have so much love holding us up,” she said. “You just start to realize how many people it took to get him to where he’s at now. This was such a crazy, horrible thing that happened, but the community is caring for him. It’s amazing to be a part of. I felt so safe and that God’s got this and there’s no need for me to worry and try and control the situation. The gift of that has shown up every single day.”
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What’s also apparent is how CPR helped in those critical moments. Friends and family are already talking about organizing a CPR class for anyone who wants to attend.
Dellenoci is especially thankful to their friends for being next to Wessels and giving him the heartbeat he needed to survive.
“I think it was really difficult for them to witness,” she said. “But we have been covering them in prayer for peace and healing and blessing, because they saved his life.”
Weber is glad, he said, he remembered the basics from his high school class – and that he caught that Office episode years ago that was somehow still deep in his mind.
He also wants to urge people to learn CPR, in case there is ever a friend or stranger in need.
“I feel like it’s a no-brainer, to at least have that awareness,” he said. “It’s such a basic thing, but it’s a lifesaver.”
Want to learn CPR? Go to redcross.org to schedule a class.