12420278869?profile=RESIZE_710xCapt. Jo Wagenhals on the job in Pompano Beach. BELOW: Wagenhals wears a ‘tuxedo suit’ while taking part in lifesaving competitions around the state. Photos provided

By Anne Geggis12420278492?profile=RESIZE_400x

Ocean Rescue Capt. Jo Wagenhals had 18 miles to go on State Road A1A to her job saving lives on Pompano Beach when she found herself in the middle of an emergency in Gulf Stream.

With decades of experience and training, Wagenhals knew there was no time to gawk at the wreckage of bicycle parts and bodies revealed in the predawn light of Jan. 4. Her car was only seconds behind the southbound compact SUV that plowed into a pack of nine northbound cyclists.

Wagenhals, heading from her Lake Worth Beach home, quickly pulled over and was immediately drawn to one of the seven injured who wasn’t groaning in pain. Just a gurgling noise came from the cyclist covered in blood, she said.

“It’s kind of like when a baby’s born — when it cries, that’s a good thing and when it doesn’t cry, now we get to work,” she said.

There was no time to take in the sheer scope of the disaster: “You know what needs to be done and then you do it,” Wagenhals said.

What she did as the sun rose that morning meant the difference between living and dying for that cyclist, said Diego Rico, 37, of Coconut Creek, who was part of the cycling pack and was also hospitalized for treatment of trauma.

“She stopped the bleeding, started giving him CPR,” Rico said. “If it weren’t for her it only takes 3½ minutes to bleed out” from an artery “and it took five or six minutes for the first responders to get there.”

Based on the counter on a cyclist’s camera and 911 calls, it’s estimated Wagenhals was working on the patient within two minutes.

“She saved him,” Rico said.

That cyclist — the most severely injured patient and a father of three — was released from the hospital in late February. Having suffered a brain injury, he’s still on the road to recovery, with no end in sight, Rico said.

But no one died.

Delray Beach Fire Rescue officials praised Wagenhals in writing for her compassion and professionalism. Her boss, Pompano Beach Fire Chief Steve Hudson, said: “I am very proud of the efforts and quick reaction of Capt. Wagenhals and am pleased to see the lifesaving work of our ocean rescue lifeguards receive recognition.”

Wagenhals, 51, says her involvement was just happenstance — as has happened in other emergencies. One Christmas Eve she chanced to see a man in a motorized wheelchair struck while barreling across the street without the help of a traffic signal or a crosswalk, and was ready to render first aid.

“I’m no hero,” Wagenhals said. “It’s what we do.”

It also highlights how today’s lifeguards are ready to handle almost every emergency. For an agency to get certification from the U.S. Lifesaving Association, as most South Florida ocean rescue agencies do, lifeguards must have earned credentials as emergency medical technicians.

Running on the sand to train for her college soccer team at Florida Atlantic University sent Wagenhals, a 1991 graduate of Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, into her lifelong profession.

She was sold on the sand, sun and salty air.

“I thought, ‘Man, I could do that,’” Wagenhals said.

Her first lifeguarding experience was in Boynton Beach. She was later hired full-time in Delray Beach, where she was named the Florida Beach Patrol Chiefs Association lifeguard of the year for 2004. She was there for 11 years before going to Pompano Beach.

Wagenhals said she has come to dread holidays as magnets for disaster. One Mother’s Day involved a child buried in the sand, she recalls. On Thanksgiving 2012, she was part of Pompano Beach’s rescue team responding to an overturned vessel that threw 23 people in the water and resulted in one woman’s death.

“You don’t forget those calls,” Wagenhals said.

She insists it’s not just an individual effort that saves trauma patients’ lives. Uniform training had her working seamlessly with a bevy of agencies at the Gulf Stream crash site, she said.

Plus, it helped that the patient could get a whole blood transfusion at the scene, Wagenhals said.

“There’s a whole lot of things that went right,” she said.

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