Ten years ago this February, former first daughter Susan Ford Bales experienced a medical scare that nearly killed her. The then 53-year-old collapsed at the gym near her home in Washington, DC—her heart had inexplicably stopped, an event known as sudden cardiac arrest (a heart attack, by contrast, is when blood flow to the heart is blocked). A physician working out nearby grabbed one of the facility’s wall-mounted defibrillators and delivered a life-saving shock with the device.
The story is all too familiar to Lynn Blake, the founder of Starting Hearts, a 10-year-old local nonprofit dedicated to CPR education and defibrillator training. On Valentine’s Day in 2007, Blake’s heart stopped while she was at work in her office in Vail Village. Firefighters from the station across the street took over CPR from co-workers until another arrived with a defibrillator, a device that ultimately saved the then 27-year-old’s life. When Blake heard about Bales’s story, she knew she had to contact her.
“We initially reached out to Susan to speak at a Starting Hearts event in 2018,” says Blake. “She had really never met another sudden cardiac arrest survivor before because there’s so few of us—just 10 percent survive—so I think we just really connected on a much deeper level.”
Famously, Bales is no stranger to Vail. Her father, President Gerald Ford, would hand-pick his security detail based on skiing ability for frequent family trips to the resort in the 1970s. Her family stayed most notably at the Basshaus—a historic A-frame located next to what is now Gondola One—before her parents bought their own place in Beaver Creek off Strawberry Park when the resort opened in the 1980s. The Fords were popular fixtures in the valley (despite losing the 1976 election, in Vail, Ford bested Jimmy Carter 1,221 votes to 261) and have remained so even after their deaths in 2006 and 2011 (witness the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater and Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail and Ford Hall and President Ford’s black-diamond run in Beaver Creek, as permanent memorials to both).
“I’ve always said the happiest days in my life have always been in this valley,” recalls Bales. “Mother and I would come up for the whole month of August because Congress would be in recess, my parents would allow me to wander the village without worrying about me, so they were just happy, carefree days.”
After meeting Blake in 2018, Bales signed on as an ambassador for Starting Hearts this past summer. As the face of the organization’s Save More Lives Challenge, Bales returned to the valley this winter to narrate a 2-minute video that shares her personal story, and teaches viewers how to recognize the symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest, use a defibrillator, and practice CPR at home. There’s a bigger goal too: expanding defibrillator access, providing free CPR training nationwide, and encouraging people to report incidents of cardiac arrest.
“I’ve always supported my parents’ organizations and what they’ve done and their legacies, and I thought this is something I have to do for myself,” says Bales. “If we can continue to educate people, think of the lives that can be saved—especially when you think that only 10 percent of people survive this, I feel like I’m a really lucky person.” –KD