Nathan Schaumleffel happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time on May 8.
The right place was on the bank of Sugar Creek near the suspension bridge at Turkey Run State Park in Parke County.
The right time occurred when Nathan witnessed three teenage boys enter the swollen creek from the opposite bank and almost immediately risk drowning.
“Sometimes they say God puts you in the right place at the right time,” said the veteran Eagle Scout on Friday during a break from his faculty duties at Indiana State University. “This was one of those times.”
With the encouragment of his wife and with their young sons watching nearby, Nathan made the courageous decision to go into the frigid, fast-moving water to help the struggling teens.
Two of the teenage boys struggled into shallow water and out of immediate danger, but one young man was moments from drowning when Nathan grabbed his shirt collar and held on until help arrived.
“It was a surreal experience,” Nathan said. “It’s one of those things that I thought about later that night, and I wondered, did that really happen?”
Almost a year later, Nathan has been honored by the Boy Scouts of America with the highest lifesaving award given. And, he has been recognized by Indiana State University’s Board of Trustee for his actions.
During a Feb. 9 awards banquet, Nathan was presented with the BSA Honor Medal with Crossed Palms for unusual heroism in saving or attempting to save a life at considerable risk to self. Only 263 have been presented since the award was established in 1938, with 13 of the top awards being presented in 2011.
On Friday, Nathan recalled his actions on the day when he and wife Melissa and their sons Coleman, 5, and Cooper, 1, were celebrating Mother’s Day at the park with a short day hike.
Coleman, who has autism and is non-verbal, was hand-in-hand with his father on a sand bar at the water’s edge beneath the suspension bridge. Cooper was in a baby backpack worn by his mother. Coleman was being taught how to skip rocks across the creek water.
The Schaumleffels noticed a large family group on the other side of the creek, and three of the teenagers were on the creek bank on a steep slope when they went into the water.
Nathan recalls that he looked at his wife and said, “This isn’t good. It reminds me of the Garth Brooks song ‘Don’t Cross the River … if you can’t swim the tide.”
A few seconds later, both Nathan and Melissa realized the fully clothed teens were in trouble and needed to be rescued. Nathan said he started taking off his shirt, hat, glasses and sandals in anticipation of helping when his wife said, “Go,” and he entered the water.
Nathan has had years of experience as a lifeguard, a lifeguard counselor, and is trained in wilderness and remote first aid. He has been a member of the Boy Scouts of America since 1983, earning the Arrow of Light, Eagle Scout Award and is a Vigil Honor member of the Order of the Arrow.
Just weeks before the incident at Sugar Creek, Nathan had taught and certified Venture Crew 93 in the wilderness and remote first aid course in preparation for an August 2011 trip to the Hawaiian Island of Kauai for a Garden Island High Adventure Program.
Nathan credits teaching that course and prepping for the trip as being critical to his performance on May 8.
“I just told myself, I’m gonna go my best until I get fatigued,” he said.
He knew that the effort of fighting the strong current and swimming in the cold water, figured at about 50 to 52 degrees that day, would soon exhaust him. But he assessed the situation and recalled the “Reach, Throw, Row, Go” training. He had no object to use to reach out to the teens for them to grasp. There was nothing such as a flotation device, to throw to them. There was no boat to row out to them. So he made the decision to go at the same time that one of the victims cried for help and dipped below the water for the first time.
One of the teens was able to scramble back toward the bank soon after falling into the water. The two other teens were being carried downstream, but as Nathan swam toward them, one teen reached a shallow area and was able to stand up and move toward the creek bank away from danger.
“I yelled to him [the second teen] to keep his eyes on the third one in case I lost sight of him,” Nathan recalled, saying that he lowered his head and swam onward into the cold water. Fortunately, the water carrying the third teen slowed enough so that Nathan could catch up.
“I was about 10 yards from the point of saying, I’m gonna drown myself, so I’m giving up,” Nathan said.
But he was able to grab the teen’s shirt collar and keep his head above water, just as he was able to feel a rock beneath his feet and take a stand against the current. Nathan could see an adult male from the teen’s group making his way to help, and together, the two men walked the exhausted victim about 35 feet from the middle of the creek to the edge. They reached a fallen tree along the river bank, and grabbed onto the tree roots to rest. Nathan recalls that he placed the victim’s chest against the roots and positioned the teens hands and arms through or around the roots while then putting his chest against the victim’s back to hold him in place.
As others arrived to assist the rescuers, they got the teen out of the water, stripped away some of this wet clothes and covered him with jackets, shirts and sweatshirts from bystanders. Nathan directed others to call for assistance, and requested equipment to transport the teen for treatment.
About 50 minutes after getting the teen out of the water, the victim was being transported for additional treatment. Nathan said that even though the teen had coughed up and vomited creek water, he was concerned that water had entered his lungs and that he was in danger of what is called “second drowning.” That is when water remains in a victim’s lungs, and after the person lies down and goes to sleep, more water accumulates in the lungs and the person drowns again.
Nathan said the teen did have an overnight stay in a local hospital, and was able to avoid the “second drowning” that could have developed.
After the excitement of the day, Nathan said a few of his friends found out about the incident when his wife posted something on Facebook. But it wasn’t until Nathan and the Venture Crew were in Hawaii on their trip that he mentioned the incident to a fellow Scout leader, who decided that Nathan’s actions merited some more attention.
The other leader, Steve Tucker of Sullivan County, began the process of recommending Nathan for the lifesaving award, and it took several months of documenting statements from witnesses and the circumstances of the day, such as creek water level and water temperature, before national Boy Scout officials could review the application.
Nathan now keeps the framed medal certificate on the wall of his ISU office, where he also serves as campus/executive director of the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance Certiication Program. That program gives ISU students experience in working for organizations such as Boy Scouts of America, United Way and YMCA programs.
An interesting sidenote of the May 8 experience is that it has prompted Nathan to assess and make changes in his own habits. He said that he now works out regularly and has changed his diet to eliminate soft drinks and fast food in favor of a healthy menu. And, that will put him in better shape physically, he noted, in case he is ever again called into a lifesaving situation.
Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.