Collegeville hiker, 20, suffered pulmonary, cerebral edema in Colorado

A coroner in Colorado has determined the official cause of death of Susanna “Susie” DeForest.
A coroner in Colorado has determined the official cause of death of Susanna “Susie” DeForest. Photo courtesy of Kate DeForest

High altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema caused the death of a young Collegeville woman who was hiking in Colorado last month, authorities said.

Twenty-year-old Susanna “Susie” DeForest likely began developing the pulmonary edema during a visit to Dillon, Colo., a day or two before she began hiking in the Aspen area Aug. 17, said Pitkin County Coroner Dr. Steve Ayers, according to a report from the Post Independent.

DeForest developed symptoms of cerebral edema — including vomiting and confusion — during the hike to the Conundrum Hot Springs with three friends, he said in the report.

The first of two helicopters dispatched to pick DeForest up could not land because it was too heavy, Ayers said Friday in the report. Initially, he said he thought DeForest might have lived had that helicopter been able to land, though that later proved to be false.

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That’s because the friend who stayed with DeForest reported that she came out of the tent to signal the helicopter at the time with her cell phone, then returned to the tent after the landing was aborted to find DeForest was dead, Ayers said. DeForest died at about 1:30 a.m., he said, according to the report.

“It wouldn’t have mattered,” Ayers said of the helicopter’s aborted landing.

The second helicopter that would eventually take DeForest’s body out of the wilderness did not arrive until 5 a.m., the report states.

Kathy Shoemaker, chief flight nurse at CareFlight in Grand Junction, said in the report Friday that the pilot thought the helicopter was too heavy to land in the compact site, so he flew back to the airport to drop a person off. At that point, he needed more fuel, but it wasn’t available at the Aspen airport, she said in the report.

A helicopter from Flight For Life in Summit County made the return trip to fly the body out, said Shoemaker and Todaro, in the report.

High altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema “can be insidious and mimic other illnesses,” Ayers said in a statement Friday, according to the report.

DeForest’s friends did not recognize or know what was happening to her, Ayers said in a subsequent interview. High altitude pulmonary edema is 100 percent fatal unless the person suffering from it is brought down to a lower altitude or given oxygen, he said, according to the report.

It begins to develop above 6,600 feet and likely would have abated if she’d been brought down to Aspen’s altitude, Ayers said in the report.

DeForest had just finished her sophomore year studying graphic design at the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design in Lancaster. She’d been named to the dean’s list during the spring semester.

DeForest’s mother, Kate, took to her Facebook page over two weeks ago to announce that her daughter died of acute altitude sickness.

“Her friends who were with her did all they could to get help to her in time,” she wrote.

DeForest’s family made a trip to Colorado to see her one last time and “visit a place she loved,” said Kate. She said her daughter was an avid hiker who loved the outdoors.

“Thank you for your prayers, we are devastated and grieving but relying on the peace of Christ and all the prayers,” she said.