June 07, 2024 | Matt Kucinski

Nathan Koestner and Ryan Halberg in their Calvin University swimming and diving warm ups.
Nathan Koestner (left) and Ryan Halberg (right) are on the Calvin men's swimming and diving team.

A four-hour flight from Thailand to Taiwan … a four-hour layover … then a 13-hour flight from Taiwan to Chicago.

“I was definitely exhausted, because I hadn’t slept in a long time,” said Nathan Kaestner, a junior at Calvin from Stilwell, Kansas.

Kaestner and some members of the Calvin swimming and diving team were just about to head through customs in Chicago's O’Hare International Airport after a two-week missions trip to Thailand, when they heard this … “Medical, medical, medical.”

Acting Quickly

“I noticed nobody was running over,” said Kaestner. “I knew I could help, and I saw nobody was helping and a family was in panic,” said Ryan Halberg, a sophomore at Calvin from Novi, Michigan. “When we noticed no EMS people were going over there, I thought ‘I know how to do CPR and first aid, so I’m going to see what’s going on.’”

The two went running, and a pair of their teammates followed.

“To be running over there with other people was a feeling of yes, we can do this as a team, we’re not just alone and helpless, we have a group of people trained in what to do,” said Halberg.

Working Together

While two of their teammates called 9-1-1, Kaestner, Halberg and another man who had run from the customs line began to check for a pulse in the man’s neck and in his wrists. They couldn’t find one, so Kaestner initiated chest compressions.

“Doing CPR, you can only sustain that tempo and rhythm for a short time. It takes a lot of energy, and I started getting tired,” said Kaestner.

So, like a relay in a pool, the three men assisting each took a turn. “It’s mentally and physically exhausting to continue that by yourself. Having other people there is super helpful and beneficial,” said Kaestner.

It also allowed Kaestner to run and look for an AED. “When I got back, a first responder had arrived and was hooking up the AED, while Ryan continued chest compressions,” said Kaestner.

A Successful Result

When Kaestner and Halberg were told to clear the area to let the paramedics take over, they did so knowing the man had just started breathing and had regained a pulse.

“We got in line [for customs] and were watching it unfold,” said Halberg. “I felt my whole body go numb not knowing if he would survive or not,” said Kaestner, “but I saw EMS get him on a stretcher and he was conscious, to which I felt great relief.”

They also heard the man’s wife yelling “thank you, thank you, thank you” to them as they exited the terminal.

Reflecting with Gratitude

In the days that followed, the two reflected further on the experience, with gratitude for the multiple rounds of CPR training they had done over the past few years in becoming lifeguards in their hometowns.

“I would say that my lifeguard training over the past three years, especially practice scenarios where we have to evaluate and begin life-saving care within a certain time frame helped prepare me for this event,” said Kaestner. “I would also say the continuous training through in-services helped me be confident to act instinctively instead of having to take critical time and think about what to do.”

Halberg and Kaestner, who were used to pushing each other during swimming and diving season as they shared a lane every Tuesday afternoon during hard distance practices, now saw the value of working as a team in a much higher stakes environment.

“I think we are all very blessed that we were in the right place at the right time to help,” said Halberg.

“In the days following once the adrenaline of the situation calmed down, I started to feel good knowing that I did the right thing that may have saved someone’s life,” said Kaestner.

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