Their training, skills and teamwork helped save a life last summer. For three lifeguards at the Michigan Tech Student Development Complex (SDC) Pool, there’s no greater reward.
Leah Komarzec ’26, Skyler Spitzley ’25 and graduating Houghton High School senior Brett Ceane received the Red Cross Lifesaving Award for Professional Responders, the highest award given to those who save or sustain a life using skills learned in Red Cross training courses.
“Receiving this award is really cool. It’s really nice to be recognized for our efforts to save the patron, but this award is nothing to the proudness I feel when I look back and realize that I helped save a life,” said Spitzley, who majors in operations and supply chain management. “We were doing our job on June 26. We saw a situation and acted, like we were prepared to.”
"The fact that the patron is still alive and breathing is an award in itself."
Spitzley has been a lifeguard for five years — the last two at the SDC Pool. Aside from reaching assists, in which swimmers are helped to safety using a hand, leg or object, this was her first rescue.
It was Komarzec’s first rescue, too. She was the active lifeguard on duty June 26, 2022, when a patron began experiencing chest pains in the pool. “What was running through my mind was that this was a serious incident and our certification and skills were going to need to be used — and to act as fast as I could while staying calm and level-headed. I more or less went into autopilot and ran through the steps we learn in training,” she said. “I knew there wasn’t time to freak out.”
Komarzec began to escort the patron to a pool exit point and activated the facility’s emergency action plan, according to the sequence of events detailed in a Red Cross press release. The person in distress began to lose consciousness.
Spitzley remembers experiencing fear coupled with intense urgency. “The first thing that ran through my mind was, ‘Oh my gosh, this is actually happening. He needs help. And immediate help now. He’s dying — we need to help him. What do I do?’” she said. “I knew I could provide care, like CPR and rescue breaths.” Spitzley mentally aligned the necessary action steps in the correct order as the similar feeling of autopilot mode that Komarzec described kicked in.
Spitzley radioed Michigan Tech Public Safety and entered the water. Ceane brought a backboard. The trio worked together to get the patron safely out of the pool.
Komarzec called 911 and retrieved the automated external defibrillator (AED), a device used to treat people experiencing cardiac arrest, as Spitzley and Cean administered CPR. A Public Safety officer arrived and together the officer and Komarzec used the AED to help restore the patron’s heart rhythm. At that point, Michigan Tech’s Emergency Medical Services arrived on the scene and took over care.
The Red Cross credits the patron's survival to the quick action of the lifeguards, who expressed his gratitude in the press release. “I know I owe God, the lifeguards and Red Cross for my being alive today,” he said. “Bless you, lifesavers.”
Why They Became Lifeguards
The incident at SDC Pool was exactly why Komarzec and Spitzley pursued lifeguard training. Like her counterparts, Komarzec participated in competitive swimming and has spent a lot of time around pools. “I wanted to be able to utilize my skills in swimming and in the pool to help people,” she said. A lifeguard for more than two years, she hails from Painesdale, about eight miles southwest of Houghton. Like Ceane, the environmental engineering major is an alum of the Houghton High School Swim & Dive program.
Spitzley, who co-captained her high school’s varsity swimming team, originally wanted to be a lifeguard in order to teach swim lessons in her hometown of Ovid, Michigan. “After learning about exactly what lifeguards do, I wanted the certification because I wanted skills to help someone in case of an emergency,” she said. “I hate feeling helpless. A lifeguard certification gives me the knowledge set to help people at their most vulnerable moment.”
Komarzec finds a deep satisfaction in what she learned through the experience. “To me, this incident and the award show that I am able to trust my fellow guards to properly run through a scenario under stress, and that the training we were given by (Aquatics Manager) Annie Bengry through the Red Cross curriculum is very efficient and necessary for becoming a lifeguard,” she said. “I am grateful for being given this award and am extremely thankful for Brett and Skyler and the teamwork experienced that day.”
The Red Cross awarded Bengry an instructor lapel pin and certificate for her contribution to the team’s lifesaving efforts. “I don’t have the words to describe how proud I am of them,” said Bengry. “Their ability to identify and respond to an unfolding emergency was impeccable. They worked together as a team with speed and confidence.”
"They each played such a vital role in the emergency response that day and because of that, they saved the patron’s life. I am excited that they are being recognized for their amazing acts. These acts would not be possible without the training and resources provided by the American Red Cross."
Komarzec, Spitzley and Ceane deployed their Red Cross training in lifeguarding, first aid, CPR and AED to accomplish their act of heroism.
“We’re extremely proud to present a Lifesaving Award for Professional Responders to these individuals,” said Kathryn Halvorsen, executive director of the American Red Cross of Wisconsin’s North Central Chapter, in the press release. “Leah, Skyler and Brett, you exemplify the mission of the American Red Cross to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. We commend you and your willingness to help another in distress and respond to the emergency. You truly are lifesavers.”
“We are proud to honor these individuals for their courageous actions,” Halvorsen continued. “We hope that their story will inspire others to learn these lifesaving skills. We need more heroes in the community who are trained and ready to jump into action.”
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.