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Updated 11:00am - Nov 26, 2014

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Dive instructor saves man's life

By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

Sometimes being a hero is about not panicking during an emergency so that you can use your skills to help someone else.

Crescent City's Juan Santillan learned that first hand this week when he saved a Grants Pass man who had a heart attack while scuba diving.

Santillan, in his twelfth year as a scuba-diving instructor, has never had a student nearly drown or get injured.

So, even though he is specially trained and tested as a rescue diver, he never had to use those skills in a real emergency – until last Sunday.

"It was one of those days when everything looks fine, then you see an inert body in the water," he said.

Santillan was conducting an advanced diving course in the 54-degree water off the Brookings coast. He had six students with heavy wet suits and air-tank vests in the water readying to descend for a deep-dive lesson. The plan was to go more than 100 feet down.

George Olfson, in his late 40s, was first in the water. According to Santillan, the Grants Pass dentist was a bit queasy from the boat ride, and waiting in the cold water for everyone else may have stressed him.

The boat skipper had already pulled anchor to head toward the point the divers would surface.

Just as the divers submerged, Santillan looked at each person to get an OK symbol and saw Olfson hunched over, unconscious, below the surface.

"He wasn't breathing, and the worst things came to mind ... I always wondered how I would react and hoped I wouldn't freeze or panic. But when it happened, it was just instant; I felt totally in control and focused," Santillan said.

Signaling to the other divers to stay together, Santillan swam to Olfson, ripped off his face mask and flipped him onto his back in the water to administer rescue breaths.

Pine Grove Elementary School Principal Becky Bouchard was in the dive class group and is credited with keeping the class together while they waited in the water. Bouchard was also credited with keeping Olfson's wife Sherrie calm while Santillan tried to get him to breathe.

The charter boat came alongside them, and the veteran scuba diver told the skipper to call the U.S. Coast Guard for Olfson and any nearby boats to pick up the other divers.

"I didn't want anyone else on the boat while we did (CPR) on George. There wasn't room. And I had seen another leisure boat over by the rock, so I wasn't worried about the other divers getting picked up," he said.

The other boat, a private sport vessel, apparently heard the commotion on the radio and motored over to Santillan's group to help immediately. Santillan said he never learned that boat captain's name but credits him for helping the other divers out of the frigid water.

It took about 40 minutes for the Coast Guard to respond with its boat to the scene and another 20 minutes for the paramedics to arrive in the Brookings harbor. During that time, Santillan used his own breath and a tank of pure oxygen to keep Olfson alive.

"We had to cut his wet suit off because his breathing was so labored. And when a person stops breathing, they become hypoxic – lacking in oxygen – so when you have pure oxygen, it helps to keep the vital organs going," said Santillan.

After a day in Sutter Coast Hospital, doctors assumed Olfson had a mild heart attack and passed out while in the water.

On Monday, he was transferred to a hospital in Medford where further tests will be administered this week.

"I feel fortunate to have been there, because I don't think he would still be alive otherwise," Santillan said.

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