His heart stopped, but Alaska drummer Robbie Lewis regained the beat with CPR

FAIRBANKS -- Robbie Lewis, a Lathrop High School drummer, left the stage at the jazz festival and dropped to the floor as the music died. His breathing halted and his heart stopped.

Lewis would have perished that day last April, but for the quick thinking of a fellow student and a chaperone.

Sarah Maffe, a jazz pianist from Palmer High School, had been waiting her turn to play before the crowd of kids from across Alaska.

It took her a moment to realize that the lifeless form she saw was not a bulky instrument but a fellow student.

Maffe, who had recently trained as a lifeguard in Palmer, did not hesitate. She began CPR on Lewis, as did Carey Seagraves Werlein, a nurse and Palmer parent chaperone, who also knew what to do.

In the seconds and minutes that followed, Maffe and Werlein gave Lewis the chance to play drums again.

The compressions on his chest by Maffe and the air blown into his lungs by Werlein kept him from slipping away after his heart failed.


In minutes, the paramedics from the University Fire Department arrived to administer advanced life support. Lewis was hospitalized and medevaced to Anchorage.

He remained in a coma for several days at Providence Hospital and had an internal defibrillator placed in his chest.

It took some time for his family to breathe easy.

On Monday night, Maffe and Werlein received awards from the American Heart Association at the Fairbanks City Council meeting for their quick thinking.

"It is not possible to describe how grateful I am to still be here," said Lewis, a third-generation drummer. "If it wasn't for people in this room like Sarah and the EMTs that brought me back, I wouldn't be here."

"There is nothing scarier than getting that close to death," said the 16-year-old.

He said his chances of survival with a 100 percent recovery were about 16 in 10,000.

"All I can think of is 'Praise God, I'm still alive,'" Lewis said.

Maffe, now a senior at Palmer, said she had been taught as a new lifeguard to look for those whose heads drop below the water and to act instantly.

"It's amazing to give someone a second chance," she said.

As Lewis recovered at Providence Hospital, Maffe visited him, bringing a purple ukulele that had been donated by Matanuska Music in Palmer. Purple is one of the Lathrop colors.

She and Lewis had a mini-concert in the hospital, with Lewis on drums.

"Neither of us had any idea of what we were doing, but evidently we sounded great," said Lewis.

Seven months have passed since the heart scare and while Lewis is 100 percent recovered, the incident remains unexplained.

Lewis' dad, Fairbanks broadcaster J.R. Lewis, said, "the miracle was in the quickness of the response."

The incident has turned the elder Lewis into an advocate for CPR training. He has made it a mission to spread that message to as many people as possible. Time is the enemy when your heart stops.

"Carey and Sarah intervened. They recognized the symptoms. They acted without hesitation. They knew what they were doing. They had the training and here he is," Lewis said of his son.


"I'm glad that he's still around, and I'm glad that we have a room full of heroes who made that possible."

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.