Costco worker, wearing elf hat, performs life-saving CPR

By Jessica Prokop

The Columbian

VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) — Dec. 23 was a day of firsts for longtime Costco employee Mathew Rios — he typically has the day off, and he’s certainly never performed life-saving measures while dressed as a Bavarian elf.

It was shortly before 10:30 a.m. and Rios had just started his shift at the Vancouver warehouse. He’s worked for Costco for 22 years, half of them at that store.

The 42-year-old said he doesn’t usually dress up for Christmas, but he decided to get into the spirit by wearing an elf hat, suspenders over a green shirt and a poinsettia-colored tie. People were calling him the “mountain elf,” he said, because of his beard.

He was working at a register when he heard a commotion from behind him, about three rows down.

“I looked back and noticed a crowd standing over someone. I don’t know who, but someone said, ‘Mat, Mat, this lady needs help,’ ” Rios recalled. “I looked and immediately realized something was wrong.”

He is one of the store’s first responders and recently moved into the safety coordinator position. Out of habit, he always carries a set of latex gloves in his back pocket.

“I put them on and ran over there. I saw an elderly woman lying on the ground with a small puddle of blood under her head. I started asking people what was going on. I thought it was a slip-and-fall. We get those more than anything else,” Rios said.

Rios was a volunteer firefighter for five years in Sandy, Ore., where he lives, and he stays current on first-responder training, he said.

When he arrived at the woman’s side, she was struggling to breathe, Rios said, and he was trying to get her to communicate. He found out that she was at the store alone.

“Within 30 seconds of me being there, she just went silent. I’ve seen this numerous times as a firefighter/EMT; I knew she had stopped breathing and that her heart had stopped beating,” he said.

That’s when Rios rolled the woman onto her back, started the timer on his watch and began performing a sternal rub. She wouldn’t respond, however, and her color changed to that of clay, he said. He started chest compressions and yelled for someone to call 9-1-1.

Another man in the checkout line, Ronnie Mason, said he was an off-duty firefighter and stepped in to help, Rios said. He used a CPR mask to breathe for the woman and checked her vitals while Rios continued chest compressions.

After about three minutes, the compressions became tighter, Rios said. “I could tell she was trying to breathe. She let out some moans,” he said.

He continued the compressions but when five minutes had passed, another bystander, Kristin Whittington, who works in the medical field, took over. However, fire rescue arrived within seconds of the switch. Rios asked supervisors to grab blankets, and they created a privacy wall around the woman while rescuers worked.

By the time she was loaded on a gurney, the woman had regained consciousness. Paramedics let her know where she was and that they were taking her to a hospital, Rios said.

Kevin Stromberg, a firefighter and spokesman for the Vancouver Fire Department, said last Tuesday that it appears the woman went into cardiac arrest and that the CPR administered by Rios helped save her life.

“We encourage people to take the first aid CPR training. This was a situation where that employee definitely made a difference in this woman’s life,” Stromberg said.

Rios said he simply relied on his training and instinct.

“I was just in the right place at the right time, you know?” he said. “I just pray and hope that if I ever have to go through that there’s someone there who can help me.”

It was the first time he’s ever performed CPR on a customer.

“I’ve helped with a lot of falls and bandaged up a lot of people at Costco,” he said. “Mentally, I’ve always been prepared through my training through Sandy fire. I give them a lot of credit. It’s invaluable training that I’ll never give up.”

Rios finished out the rest of his shift. His good deed didn’t set in until the end of the day, he said.

“I was reflecting. Did I do everything I could of?” Rios said. “At the end of the day, I was pretty proud of myself and pleased that I was able to be there for her.”

He didn’t catch the woman’s name but learned from other employees that she’s a regular at the store. He heard from a friend that she has a few cracked ribs but is doing OK.

“It’s just nice to know that I was there for someone’s grandmother, someone’s mother, someone’s friend and helped them out in a time of crisis,” Rios said.

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