By: Jennifer Costa, Regional Communications Director
“My night was certainly way less traumatic than what I put my son and wife through.”
Todd Andrews, of Bristol, Maine, doesn’t remember much from the night he almost died.
“Sam flat out saved my life,” he said.
On January 3, 2023, Sam Richards, called on his American Red Cross training in Lifeguarding, First Aid and CPR to save his father’s life. The 21-year-old and his dad were sitting down for a steak dinner when Todd jokingly took a large bite of steak, never intending to swallow it.
“I thought I had broken off a little piece and figured, well I can swallow this little piece. Apparently, it was still attached because the whole thing went down,” Todd said. “I remember just being terrified. I was telling myself: ‘don’t swallow, don’t swallow, don’t swallow’ – and yet that’s the natural reaction. The little piece is already far enough down, and the big piece has to follow.”
The steak became lodged in Todd’s throat, blocking his airway. He threw a fork at his son to get his attention before he fell unconscious, smacked his eye on the doorway and stopped breathing.
“Pretty quickly it went from, ‘Okay, dad’s choking. That’s scary, but I’m fine. I know how to do this, to ‘oh no!’ So I called for mom,’” Sam recounted.
“I realized all of a sudden that something was super wrong,” said Sarah Richards, Sam’s mom. “I ran in there and I saw my husband Todd lying on the floor and Sam said, ‘He’s choking!’ The night went from totally ordinary – to red in a second.”
Todd’s pulse was undetectable – and he was bleeding heavily from his fall.
“There was a moment or two of fear. It was really scary,” Sam said.
Sam, who is Red Cross trained in lifesaving skills, refused to let the fear take hold. Instead, he leaned on his training and went to work. After several unsuccessful attempts at abdominal thrusts, he knew is only option was to clear his father’s airway. Miraculously, Sam was able to get his fingertips on a tiny corner of the steak and pulled until he dislodged it.
“After what felt like an eternity, that worked,” Sam’s mom said. “He went through what must have been a mental list for him of things to do and saved my husband. It was remarkable. Even with a crazy mom right there, he never lost focus.”
Sarah called 911 – and Sam successful performed CPR until his father eventually began breathing on his own.
“I got a cough. I got a wheeze. I got a pulse – and I got some vomit, thank God. Dad rolled over and really gently started to breathe under his own power,” Sam said.
“It’s overwhelming for all the right reasons – and at the same time, I feel horrible that I put him through that,” Todd said. “I’m certainly glad he had the training.”
Sam grew up at the Wiscasset Community Center, starting in swim lessons as a toddler and progressing through the competitive swim program. He then got his Red Cross Lifeguarding Certification. Though he never became a lifeguard, the skills he learned in that course, saved his father’s life. After the incident, his lifeguarding instructor and swim coach, Lori LaPointe, nominated Sam for a national Red Cross Lifesaving Award.
“Sam came to me the next day after he did this heroic thing, and he was very teary-eyed. He said, ‘I feel so lucky to have this opportunity to save my father’s life – and that only happened because I took the class that you encouraged me to take,” LaPointe said.
Red Cross Central and Mid Coast Maine Executive Director Sophie Piconi presented Sam, a student at Brandeis University, with the American Red Cross Certificate of Merit at the Wiscasset Community Center pool in early June.
The Certificate of Merit is the highest award given by the Red Cross to individuals who save or sustain a life using skills learned in a Red Cross Training Services course. It is signed by the President of the United States. These individuals exemplify the mission of the Red Cross to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies and are to be commended for their willingness to help others in distress.
“At one point, I thought we had done everything that could be done. I felt like maybe we had lost Todd, but Sam never gave up,” Sarah said. “I couldn’t be any more proud of my son. It was amazing. His Red Cross training saved a life right in front of my eyes – and it was his training that kept Sam so calm.”
Lori was also honored with a Red Cross Lifesaving Instructor Award for teaching the skills that helped save or sustain a life. She’s taught lifeguarding and CPR skills to roughly 2,000 individuals over her 25-year tenure as the aquatics director for the Wiscasset Community Center.
“I’m very proud of Sam,” Lori said. “He was able to pull from his memory – and save his own father’s life. That is hands-down the most rewarding thing that’s ever happened to me here at the community center.”
Sam humbly accepted the award, gave his dad and huge hug and shared one piece of advice.
“There’s absolutely no way you can predict this stuff,” he said. “No one intends to choke. No one intends to go swimming, cramp and drown. No one intends for any of these things that the Red Cross provides skills for. I’m thankful that I knew what I knew. All I can say is: ‘Learn. You might need it.’”
Red Cross training gives people the knowledge and skills to act in an emergency and save a life. A variety of online, blended (online and in-person skills session) and classroom courses are available at redcross.org/takeaclass.
People can go to LifesavingAwards.org to nominate and recognize an individual or group of individuals who have used the skills and knowledge learned in an American Red Cross Training Services course to help save or sustain a life.