MILWAUKEE, WI — The date was January 14, 2000. Lee Curtes remembers it like it was yesterday. The location was high atop a mountain in Vail, CO. Curtes and his friends were preparing to ski down one of the newly opened slopes in this popular resort area.

Before that day, Curtes, the co-owner of Auer Steel & Heating Supply Co., had been experiencing chest pains and discomfort, much of it related to job stress. “This business can get to you,” he said.

His doctor had checked him out, but couldn’t complete the vital treadmill test until February 2000. So prior to the ski trip, he gave Curtes some nitroglycerine pills for discomfort, which Curtes left behind before ascending the mountain.

“After I got to the top of the mountain I began to have trouble breathing,” he said. He looked at his pocket altimeter and determined that the high-altitude mountain air shouldn’t have been causing the breathing problem.

Curtes took off his skis and went to sit down. By this time he was sweating profusely and the pain in his chest began emanating to all parts of his body. He was suffering the classic symptoms of a heart attack.

“I was in denial,” Curtes admitted. “I knew I was having a heart attack and didn’t admit it. I thought if I rested I’d feel better.”

Curtes said that after the pain went away, he was determined to ski down the hill. But as soon as he put his jacket back on, the pain returned, more intense than ever, a “10 on a scale of 10” according to Curtes.

His wife, Melodee, alerted a member of the nearby ski patrol, who laid Curtes on his back. Melodee held an oxygen mask on her husband.

“I couldn’t breathe,” Curtes said. “I felt like I was drowning in air. And that was when my heart stopped.”

Fortunately, the ski patrol was equipped with an automatic external defibrillator (AED). The device was used to shock Curtes’ heart. It worked. Curtes’ heart began to beat again.

Curtes had to endure some harrowing moments afterward, such as the helicopter airlift to a Vail hospital and another move to a more medically advanced hospital in nearby Denver. His heart stopped once more in the emergency room, and he needed to have a clot removed from an artery. But the worst was over. Curtes had escaped death, thanks to the ski patrol and the availability of the AED.

“The ski patrol told me this was the first successful resuscitation after seven fatalities,” Curtes said.

Curtes’ daughter, Rachel, who works at Auer, talked about some of the harrowing moments after she was informed of her father’s heart attack.

“It was gut-wrenching,” she said. “I was not used to seeing Dad in that condition, hooked up to machines. We wondered if there would be any brain damage if he did recover.

“He gradually woke up and when the breathing tube was removed from his mouth, he whispered, ‘Egbok.’ That is a family word for ‘everything’s gonna be okay.’ We knew he was okay right then.”

Crusading For AEDS

Curtes believes that if it weren’t for the AED and the quick action of all of the emergency personnel, he would have been carried off the mountaintop in a body bag. He is using this “second chance” at life to promote the availability of AEDs in the workplace.

One of the first things Curtes did was to convince John Ayers, president of the Carrier Corp., to install AEDs in the company’s Syracuse, NY, facilities.

The move had immediate benefits. A Carrier employee was revived with an AED after going into cardiac arrest while being examined by Carrier’s medical staff. The employee, Phil Alberts, had gone to the clinic complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath. While waiting for transport to the local hospital, Alberts’ heart stopped. That’s when the AED was put to work.

Curtes believes this is an example of what can happen when a person or company is moved to make a quick decision regarding the health of employees. “If you don’t move a person to action, they may procrastinate until it becomes too late to save a life,” he said.

Curtes recently convinced several local Bryant dealers to contribute money toward the purchase of AEDs for Washington County, WI, police cars.

In addition to having the equipment on hand, Curtes is asking employees to take voluntary AED training, available through the local Red Cross and other nursing associations.

“The Red Cross [or the American Heart Association (AHA)] will come in and train employees on how to use the unit,” he said. “It involves four hours of training; three on CPR and one on AED operation. The learning steps are as easy as one-two-three, and even a child can learn the operation.”

Christy Schmalzer, Auer’s human resources manager, said that about 20 employees have gone through the training so far, at company expense.

“All employees are welcome to take the training,” she said. “This is an ongoing process. We just have made sure that at least one person in each department has been represented in the training.

“Lee has led the charge and has been a wonderful champion of the cause [for AEDs].”

Curtes has since returned to Vail for a reunion of his friends, family, and the emergency crew that helped to save his life. “I wanted to go back and slay the dragon,” Curtes mused.

Curtes purchased two AEDs for his business and one to take with him when he goes on trips. Each unit costs approximately $3,000, and they are available through the AHA (

“It is a small investment — to say the least,” Curtes said.

Curtes has also become an advocate for a healthy lifestyle, contributing health tips to a bi-weekly newsletter.

“I’ve learned to change my work habits, too,” Curtes concluded. “I focus more on health now.”

Publication date: 07/16/2001