“Miracle on Grass”? Really? That’s the phrase I started to hear yesterday morning. I mean, how cliché…
Well, it’s not if you were anywhere near Field 3 Wednesday afternoon at the 28th annual Lake Placid Summit Lacrosse Tournament. Not if you saw John Sussingham revived not once, but at least twice as he suffered a heart attack after playing with the Olde WU Legends 50+ team.
Not if you watched the Tournament athletic training staff respond within seconds with an AED.
Not if you watched John’s wife Helen and his son Andrew plead with their Dad to hang in there.
Not if you watched it all unfold like I did.
At Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, the medical staff is calling John “the Miracle Man,” so Miracle on Grass is definitely apropos.
Tournament director George Leveille had just finished playing with his 60+ Cloud Splitter team on an adjacent field when he saw a State Trooper car following a responding EMT across the end zones of Fields 1, 2, and 3. He said afterwards, “My first thought was that we had a Trooper in hot pursuit coming across our fields! I didn’t realize what the situation was at first.”
When John came off the field after his game and told a few teammates that he was feeling pain in his chest, the teammates ran over to the athletic trainers’ tent. University of Maryland trainer Anthony Benyarko and UPenn trainer Anthony Erz both ran about 100 yards with an AED. John was sitting up and talking when they arrived, but he soon lay down and lost consciousness. Benyarko started doing chest compressions while Erz called 911 and started to prepare the AED.
“It was great that we were both there,” said Benyarko. “I could do CPR while he (Erz) called 911 and got the AED ready.” When it was ready, they followed the AED’s directions. Moments later, the AED said to repeat the procedure.
When Lake Placid EMT Melissa Furnia arrived, John was fading yet again. She was the driver of the car that looked like it was being chased. As more EMTs, Troopers, paramedics, and ambulance drivers arrived, John was surrounded by a support team that also included Dr. Evan Vosburgh and Dr. Steve Seminar, players on the Eldest Statesmen team, and emergency room physician Dr. Brian McGovern. Helen said, “He was immensely helpful in explaining everything to me and keeping me calm and informed.”
I was over at Field 4 when we saw the flashing lights (I missed the apparent car chase), and I walked over to see what was going on. When I got closer, I watched as Benyarko administered CPR, with old-fashioned chest compressions while Erz prepared the AED. Despite being re-certified almost every year in First Aid and CPR, I had never witnessed a live CPR rescue before. John looked unresponsive, and I wondered if we were in fact witnessing a horrible tragedy. After a few minutes, Melissa took over for the two trainers and continued with chest compressions.
In the dramatic moments that followed, Melissa amazed and impressed all of us with the way she took charge of the scene. The proverbial group of volunteers and professionals was in need of a chief, and there was no question about who was taking over that role.
Don’t hold me to too many exact details, but after a few minutes, it looked like John was “back,” that he going to be OK. Unfortunately, though, that status didn’t last very long. By watching Melissa’s mannerisms, we could tell that things had again taken a turn for the worse. There were lots of helping hands, but if anyone did something that Melissa didn’t approve of, she let the group know about it.
The Troopers asked the gathering to move back, and the friends, teammates, and other teams preparing for the next game solemnly cooperated. There was a request for aspirin, and someone went running. Minutes later, there was a call for ice, and then a towel or shirt, and again, individuals from the group of well-wishers went running to help in any way they could.
A second ambulance arrived, apparently coming from another call in Saranac Lake, and it appeared that John’s situation was improving once again. A route was cleared for the ambulance, and as John was loaded onto the gurney, the crowd clapped and cheered words of encouragement. Following a State Trooper, the ambulance sped off with John’s wife Helen riding shotgun.
By Wednesday night we heard that John had been taken to the hospital in Plattsburgh, which indicated that his condition wasn’t as critical as it might have been; if it had been more serious, we were assured, he would have been transported to Burlington or Albany or Syracuse.
“I would never want to re-live a moment of yesterday afternoon,” Helen said the next day, “but it was awesome how everyone came together.” She also wanted to publically thank CVPH cardiologist Dr. Eric Gouthier for his help, and family friend Mark Sackerson, “a lax bro supporting us through the whole thing.”
On Thursday morning, word was circulating that John was doing well – better than any of us had really expected. Then a photo arrived via IPhone, of John sitting up in his hospital bed, smiling, looking pretty darn healthy, giving us all a thumbs-up. Later that afternoon, I received a photo of John standing up, surrounded by his family.
Helen told me that John lives an active lifestyle. “He plays on a local lacrosse team, runs three miles several times a week, and is in great shape. His fitness level is probably what allowed him to survive.”
Hey, I’m 57 years old. I haven’t played lacrosse in four or five years – but I do still play ice hockey. Let’s all learn something from this, please. Listen to your bodies. Take care of yourself – eat right, get some regular exercise, and see your doctor for an annual check-up. And let’s make sure there is an AED at all ball fields, stadiums, and rinks, too.
Thankfully, this story looks like it’s got a happy ending, but things could have easily gone the other way. We all got lucky yesterday, thanks to skills and actions of Anthony Benyarko and Anthony Erz, Melissa Furnia, a number of doctors, and everyone else who helped save John’s life.
Last night, when we inducted our 2017 Lake Placid Legends – Anthony Ortolano and Greg Gephardt – we also honored Melissa Furnia, who graciously returned to our playing fields under much different and happier circumstances. Olde WU Legends players thanked her, the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to her (today’s her birthday), and she was presented with an LP Summit Tournament “MVP” backpack.
An MVP who has never touched a stick?
Miracle on Grass?
Absolutely. No doubt about it.
- Dan Witmer