Mammoth resident Cameron Schwartzkopf survives near-drowning in OxnardCameron Schwartzkopf, born and raised in Crowley Lake, nearly drowned on February 22 while surfing alone in Oxnard. A group of citizens pulled Schwartzkopf out of the water and performed CPR until the paramedics arrived, ultimately saving his life. After only a few days in the hospital, Schwartzkopf fully recovered and is now back home in Mammoth. “I just remember being out surfing and having a good time,” Schwartzkopf said. “And then I woke up in the hospital.” A few days after the incident, Schwartzkopf met his rescuers and heard the full story.
“When we got to you in the water, you were barely above the surface. Your mouth was partially open but it was full of water. Your eyes were open but you were out,” said Tom Dillon, a fellow surfer. Dillon was walking out of the water when his friend, Walt Thompson, pointed to a board floating 60-70 yards off shore. They spent a few moments looking for a guy swimming in or walking around with a broken leash before they realized Schwartzkopf was still in the water.
Dillon ran back into the water while Thompson called 911. As Dillon was swimming towards the floating board he grabbed Chris Campana, a body surfer, to go with him. “I didn’t even give him a chance, I just said you gotta help me, we gotta get this guy,” Dillon said. Campana and Dillon estimate it took them at least five minutes to get Schwartzkopf to shore. “There were 4-5 foot shore breaks and you were just getting pounded,” Campana said. “I just kept thinking, he’s dead. He’s dead.” No one knows how long Schwartzkopf was knocked out before Campana and Dillon got to him in the water.
Once Schwartzkopf was on shore, Dillon, Campana and Thompson couldn’t find a pulse and kept Schwartzkopf on his side as they tried to get the water out of his lungs. “The blue color of your lips… your skin color was gray,” Thompson said. “The lack of any color in your face scared me.” After a few minutes, water and blood began pouring out of Schwartzkopf’s mouth. “It was a beautiful moment there as I watched your mouth barely quiver,” Thompson said.
Two other people on the beach began to realize what was happening and ran over to assist Dillon, Campana, and Thompson. Larry Manion, a retired police chief, was walking with his wife, Leonor, who told him, “I think they’re dragging a seal up on shore.” As Dillon started pounding on Schwartzkopf’s back, Manion realized it was a person. Shawn Mackey was celebrating her 50th birthday with family when they noticed all the commotion. Mackey, who is trained in CPR, sprinted down the beach to Schwartzkopf’s body.
Mackey immediately rolled Schwartzkopf to his back and began administering CPR, as the emergency dispatcher, Amber Anderson, counted cadence over the loudspeaker of Thompson’s cell phone. “Following directions for CPR like that is one in a million,” said Anderson. “It doesn’t happen that smoothly.”
When Mackey tired, after about five minutes, Manion took over. “You were not only coughing up water but blood. You were gurgling, foaming at the mouth, and there was blood dripping out of your eyes,” Manion said.
“All of a sudden, you just popped with some life and everyone just started screaming at you,” Dillon said. The color started returning to Schwartzkopf’s face but his heart was still beating erratically. The Fire Department arrived around this time and loaded Schwartzkopf into the ambulance. On the way to the hospital his heart regulated, before the paramedics had to use the defibrillator, and he began breathing on his own. He was admitted as a “John Doe” to the hospital just after 11 a.m.
At some point during the whole process, Thompson noticed Schwartzkopf’s wedding ring. He began yelling at Schwartzkopf: “Come on man. You have a wife, you have a family,” and the entire group began chanting, “fight! Fight!”
“He wasn’t wearing his ring, I was,” Melanie, Schwartzkopf’s wife said. “He never wears it surfing.” Melanie last saw Schwartzkopf in the water around 10 a.m., when she waved to him before returning to their friend’s house to make lunch. Melanie knew something was wrong when Schwartzkopf hadn’t come home by 3:30 p.m. “I just kinda lied to myself for lots of hours,” she said. The Schwartzkopfs have been married four years.
Melanie gathered friends in the area—a slew of lifeguards, nurses, and even a retired Fire Chief—to help her find her husband. Through their connections, Melanie discovered that a near drowning victim had been admitted to St. John’s Regional Hospital earlier that morning.
At the same time, Melanie received a phone call from Jes Schwartzkopf, Cameron’s mother as well as a prominent local realtor. At around 4:30 pm Jes answered a phone call from the Critical Care Unit at St. John’s asking if she had a son named Cameron. Schwartzkopf was in an induced coma and on a ventilator, but the nurses had briefly taken him out of the coma several hours earlier and he was able to write his full name.
but the nurses had briefly taken him out of the coma several hours earlier and he was able to write his full name.
The nurses then scoured the Internet looking for any Schwartzkopf to contact. “It was like being in a dream,” Jes said about receiving the phone call. “I don’t think I really realized at that point how close to death he’d come.”
When Melanie arrived at the hospital Saturday night, Schwartzkopf was still having water and sand pumped out of his stomach and lungs. The doctors told her he would be in the induced coma for at least several days and they still weren’t sure about brain, heart, and lung damage. “They didn’t know what to expect. They said it’s a miracle,” Melanie said. At the very least, he would most likely develop pneumonia due to breathing in salt water. They predicted he would stay in the hospital for two weeks.
By Sunday afternoon, Schwartzkopf was cleared by both the cardiologist and pulmonologist and they had taken him out of the induced coma. “He was sitting up, eating ice cubes, and making jokes,” Melanie said. “None of us could believe it.” That afternoon Schwartzkopf transferred from the ICU to the general ward and he was released from the hospital on Tuesday, February 25th.
It is still unknown what caused Schwartzkopf to nearly drown. “There’s no way to tell if it was a seizure or I hit my head on the sand,” he said. “And I don’t remember.”
Schwartzkopf, now 30, began having seizures at 27, and has had seven or eight since then. He underwent hundreds of tests to rule out hundreds of diseases. In the end, the neurologists agree the seizures are a result of several concussions Schwartzkopf experienced while skiing and playing soccer in Mammoth growing up. “Growing up, up here is pretty full on. I’ve been knocked out a bunch of times.”
Schwartzkopf began skiing as a Mighty Mite, then competed on the Race Team until the mountain started the Freeride team his sophomore year at Mammoth High School. “We lived on the mountain. I was up there every day except for Mondays,” Schwartzkopf said. “And I would have been there Mondays expect we had to do a full day of school for some reason.”
Schwartzkopf started surfing while visiting his aunt in San Diego at the age of 15. He lived in Australia, Thailand, and Mexico and has traveled even further to surf. This is the first winter Schwartzkopf has lived in Mammoth since 2002. He works as a coach for Mighty Mites: “You can’t beat the workspace. It’s really cool to be a part of the program that was such a big part of my life growing up.”
Schwartzkopf understands the reality of what could have happened to him that day in Oxnard. “I’ve done emergency work, the whole CPR deal on people,” he said. “CPR is great, it can save lives but it doesn’t that often.” Schwartzkopf worked as an EMT on an ambulance in Bishop several years ago. “It’s scary stuff,” he said. “People may survive but after four minutes brain damage sets in because of lack of oxygen.”
Schwartzkopf is still recovering from a contusion on his heart from the CPR, but has no other side effects from his near drowning incident. He played tennis and golf last weekend in Bishop. “I don’t feel any issues,” he said.
Marion is still in shock at the speed of Schwartzkopf’s recovery. “It was something else,” Marion said. “It’s just one of those miracles of life when all the right people come together at the right time.”
“No pressure,” Campana told Schwartzkopf, “but you’ve been given a second chance.”