The chaos began when 5-year-old Ariana Metchik walked into the room and announced, “I can’t find Asher.”
She didn’t know that her 20-month-old brother had slipped out of the house. Nor did she know that Asher had fallen into a backyard pond.
But thanks to Ariana’s announcement and the quick actions of a family friend, Asher didn’t die that day. More than 20 years later, Asher Metchik is now working at a medical technology company that will help save other lives.
Still, as Asher returns to the county for the holidays, his family often thinks how things might have been horribly different.“I think of it a lot when I look at Asher,” said Robyn Metchik. “Or if you read a story in the newspaper about a tragedy, you always think about that.”
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The near-tragedy began in February 1988 at the Metchik home in Oceano. Robyn, a school drama teacher, was trying on a dress for an upcoming play. Kathy Sugishita, a friend and musical director of the play, was helping Metchik.
When Ariana announced that Asher was missing, Sugishita quickly searched the house and noticed an open side door. Then, knowing there was a fish pond at the property, she immediately headed for the water.
“I ran up there and, sure enough, there he was — floating face up, about 6 inches under the water,” she said.
She fished Asher out of the pond, told Ariana and her own son, Tommy, to stay put and had Metchik call 911. Then she went to work on saving Asher.
While she had taken first-aid classes from the Red Cross, it had been eight years.
“I was just praying ‘Oh, God — don’t let this baby die’ and trying to remember what I was supposed to do from that CPR training.”
At first, she administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, remembering that with babies you had to cover their nose and mouth. She also did chest compressions.
“He still wasn’t coming around,” Sugishita said. “Then I noticed his lips started to look blue, and I knew we were getting real close to losing him.”
While 911 operators were trying to calm Asher’s mother, Sugishita tried a different approach.
“Kathy was cool, she was calm — she just took control,” Metchik said.
Still seeing no signs of life, Sugishita picked up the toddler and performed the Heimlich maneuver. The second time she squeezed him, he vomited. After she lay him down, he threw up more.
“Then his little eyes opened, and he just started making a little cry,” Sugishita said.
Later, he was flown by helicopter to Stanford, where doctors would watch for brain damage and infection. Four days later, Asher was back home.
While the Metchiks had considered what to do with the pond before the accident, the dilemma was solved during their absence.
“While we were gone, another set of our friends came and filled in the pond,” Robyn said.
The life-saving event was not the last encounter Asher would have with Sugishita. When Asher was older, he took piano lessons from her — as did his brother and sister — from age 7 to 15. While he was too young to remember the incident, his parents told him about it. As a result, he said, he felt a special bond with the woman who saved him.
“There’s almost an unspoken thank you,” he said. “I would like to say it more.”
Eventually, the Metchik children started acting. Asher’s older brother, Aaron, began to get roles in shows such as “The Torkelsons,” “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman” and “Boy Meets World.” Asher followed suit, starting with local plays.
In a production of “Charlie Brown,” he was Charlie Brown while future Hollywood heartthrob Zac Efron played Snoopy. Some time later, Asher’s mother would jumpstart Efron’s TV and movie career by hooking him up with an agent in Los Angeles.
“I knew when I saw him in drama class, after watching him a year and a half, that he was ready to go,” said Metchik, Efron’s former drama teacher. “So I talked to his mom and said, ‘Do you want to start doing the business?’ ”
Asher would eventually appear on film as well, with roles on “Growing Pains,” “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” and the movie “Corrina Corrina.”
“I was a very hyper kid,” Asher said. “And it was a great chance for me to express myself in a way that was appropriate.”Eventually, the acting conflicted with school sports and academics, forcing him to scale back on film. And as he approached college age, he decided to pursue engineering.
“I always loved tearing my toys apart and seeing what was on the inside and how they worked,” he said.
After getting a degree in engineering from UCLA, he went on to get a master’s in mechanical engineering from the university.
Now he works full-time in research and development at Edwards Life Services, which specializes in treating advanced cardiovascular disease. His job focuses on improving less intrusive heart surgeries that don’t require opening the chest cavity.
“There’s always improvements to be made,” said Asher, who lives in Irvine.
Meanwhile, his mother continues to teach drama at Nipomo High School, Paulding and Mesa middle schools. Metchik, her husband Paul and Asher recently helped Aaron create the movie “10 Years Later,” a dark comedy filmed in the South County.
(Asher’s sister, Ariana, was in the Peace Corps in Africa at the time.) Aaron Metchik is currently seeking distribution for the film and submitting it to festivals.
Sugishita still lives close to the place where she saved Asher. A few years ago, she stopped giving piano lessons so she could devote more time to a new job as a full-time music and liturgy director at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Arroyo Grande.
Inside her home, a Certificate of Merit from the Red Cross hangs on her wall, a reminder of her heroism and the precious nature of life.
When she recalled the incident to The Tribune in 1988, Sugishita told a reporter, “It gives me the shakes whenever I think about it.” Earlier this week, when she retold the story for a different reporter, the story gave her the chills.
“It just reminds you of what, in an instant, can happen,” she said.
While the Metchiks don’t see her as often as they once did, Robyn Metchik said Sugishita will always hold a special place in her thoughts.
“We are all indebted to Kathy,” she said. “I can’t imagine, even in my wildest dreams, what life would have been like. … What would my relationship have been like with my husband? What would it have been like with my kids?”