Contributor: Nerd Senior
In May 2022, our oldest son graduated from Nebraska-Lincoln. On the evening prior to the graduation ceremonies, the business school held an event for about 40 students. After the formalities concluded, the students and several hundred extended family members lingered outside the Alumni Center, savoring the mild weather and the culmination of four years of hard work.
As we stood there chatting and laughing, a student’s grandfather collapsed on the sidewalk. It took at least 30 seconds for the entire crowd to hush, and only because a family member began yelling, “is anyone here a doctor”? The joyful noise turned to silence. A graduate’s older sister came forward, identified herself as a nurse and began CPR in tandem with another bystander.
A siren wailed in the distance. Aside from the two individuals attending to the grandfather, the rest of us could do nothing but pray. A few minutes later the crowd left to make way for the ambulance.
As we drove back to Omaha, I couldn't help but wonder if there were many worse places to have a heart attack than at a business school function.
Memphis Zabawa looks like a boy built for cross country. A seventh grader at Millard North Middle School (MNMS), he’s played soccer for eight years and enthusiastically participated in the MNMS running club last fall. He comes from a sports-minded family, and his 5th-grade brother Cruz is already itching to join the cross country team.
He ran his first meet of the year on September 1st. Junior high races are about two miles – give or take a few hundred meters – and he had no problems during the race despite a history of asthma. He carries an inhaler in his shorts in case he needs it, but asthma only tends to be a problem for him during wide swings in the weather or if there’s poor air quality.
On Friday, September 8, Russell Middle School hosted a meet at Walnut Grove near 150th & Q. The junior high kids use much of the same course as the high school meets, just cutting out the middle section on the west end of the park. The start and finish are the same, so the athletes finish by running through the tunnel of evergreen trees just east of the starting line, continuing south along the park’s edge until they reach Q Street, and then tackling two hills over the next 300 meters to the finish.
When shooting pictures at Walnut Grove, I often sit in the valley between those two hills, in part because there are rarely spectators at the top of the hill to clutter the background of my pictures. The absence of spectators near Q Street isn’t surprising since the best racing action typically occurs on the final 100 meters of the course.
On September 8th, the center of the Nebraska distance running world was at Mahoney State Park where the Platte River Rumble was held. Temperatures were mild for PRR’s morning races, but the thermometer crept up to the mid-80’s by the time Memphis started his race. As September races go, it wasn’t really that hot, especially with Walnut Grove’s ample shade trees, but the air quality was not ideal.
It was Memphis’ second career race and he was not trying to win a medal. He ran beside two teammates, Sam and Colin, and they settled into a sustainable pace. His dad Justin saw him at 600 meters, just before the tree tunnel, and Memphis looked comfortable. When Memphis passed through the trees on his return trip, at around 2400 meters, Justin felt Memphis was going slower and his feet ‘looked heavy.’ However, he looked like he would finish with Sam and Colin, who were flanking him.
By the time Memphis reached the loop near Q Street, he was feeling significantly worse. He doesn’t remember much, but two Russell Middle School (RMS) teachers do. Juli Gray and Amanda Taylor were standing near the south edge of the course, give their students encouragement before they tackled the final two hills. After taking pictures of the final Russell runners, Amanda began walking to her car while Juli stayed behind. They both noticed that Memphis, whom they didn’t know, was struggling, and indicated that she’d keep watching him.
Moments later, Memphis collapsed. Juli yelled for Amanda and they both rushed to Memphis. Juli is a current Russell BB/T&F coach and Amanda is a former XC coach at Millard Public Schools, so both have been trained in CPR basics. Although Juli assumed that Memphis was suffering from a heat-related condition, she did three things immediately. She told the Memphis’ teammates to go tell their coach that a teammate needed help. She called the Russell athletic director, Zac Ward, who was hosting the event, and told Zac to bring the first aid kit and automatic external defibrillator (AED). Finally, she told Amanda to call 911.
Amanda put the 911 operator on speaker and the operator walked the two teachers through an assessment. They put Memphis on his side. They told the operator that an inhaler was lying on the ground next to Memphis. Juli confirmed that Memphis was breathing and had a weak pulse. The operator continued to ask questions and give direction.
Dawn Davis was walking to her car with her son, who had finished the same race a few minutes earlier. She saw adults gathered around a prone runner, assumed that a runner had overheated, and didn’t want to add to the chaos. However, she had water in the car so she walked towards the group to offer it.
Within a minute of his collapse, Memphis took a turn for the worse. When Dawn was close enough to see Memphis' skin color, she could assess what Juli had also just realized; Memphis had stopped breathing. The 911 operator indicated that CPR needed to be performed.
The three ladies could hear approaching sirens.
Justin was waiting at the finish and realized that Memphis should have finished by then. He began walking the final stretch towards Q Street when he saw the MNMS coach sprint by him. Justin immediately knew something was wrong; he and Cruz followed the coach. When he found Memphis surrounded by kneeling adults, he only said one thing: “I support whatever you need to do.” He then called his wife Erin, who was still at school helping set up for an evening event.
Dawn joined Juli and Amanda in a kneeling position, identified herself as a nurse and began performing CPR. Thirty compressions and then Juli performed rescue breaths. Thirty more compressions. More rescue breaths. Dawn finished a third cycle of compressions just as the paramedics arrived. A paramedic took over chest compressions while other paramedics prepared an AED from the ambulance.
Time stopped and yet somehow flew by. The ambulance had been parked for a football game at Millard South, just three blocks away, so Justin estimated that the response time was less than three minutes. The paramedics eventually restarted Memphis’ heart using the AED, and he was on his way to Children’s Hospital within ten minutes of his collapse.
Justin and Cruz picked up Memphis’ torn shirt, crumpled on the ground near where he had fallen. Cruz insisted they find his backpack too. They ran to the car to begin their drive to Children’s. Erin beat them there by five minutes.
Dawn, still full of adrenaline from performing CPR, collected her son and drove away. Juli and Amanda, who had simply been there as spectators, walked in a daze to the finish line with several other MPS staff.
There is no ceremony when you see someone brought back to life. You hug your coworkers. You get in your car and drive home. You try to make sense of it all.
The Children’s doctors have told the Zabawas that Memphis had a severe asthma attack that led to cardiac arrest. After two days of testing and monitoring, they concluded that he suffered no long-term effects of his cardiac arrest. They attributed this in part to how quickly CPR was begun. His pulmonologist is monitoring his air intake for the next two weeks, and later this week he’ll have a stress test to check his heart function.
Broken bones are often a byproduct of CPR. Memphis had none, and his only bruises were where intravenous lines were placed.
While Memphis would prefer otherwise, he’s being held out of sports until he’s been cleared by his doctors. He’s been going to his cross country and soccer practices to be with his teammates. Aside from a raspy voice from being intubated, he's the same kid he always was.
I found out about Memphis because one of our Nerds texted me a screenshot of a Facebook post written by Erin Zabawa four days after the race. As you would expect when something so life-altering has happened, it was a long post, but the gist of it was essentially this: “Who are the people who saved my son’s life?”
Erin, Justin and Memphis met these ‘angels’ at a coffee shop five days after the race. Dawn, Juli, Amanda and several others who contributed that day were there. There were tears and hugs.
There are still tears. From the people I interviewed, from me when I tried to tell the story to my kids, and certainly from anyone near Memphis the day his heart stopped.
The NSAA's Constitution and Bylaws include recommendations regarding the presence of medical personnel at regular season athletic events: "Severe injuries, sudden illnesses and other critical incidents do not often occur during school activities, but it important for every school to have an emergency action plan (EAP) for administrators, faculty, coaches and staff members to follow should emergencies occur. Due to the lack of universal availability of medical coverage and other logistical reasons, the NSAA does not require that schools have a physician, trainer or ambulance on-site at regular season activities; however, each school should have a plan in place should there be an emergency involving, students, coaches, officials or spectators requiring medical attention."
The NSAA does require that all high school coaches (head, assistant or volunteer) take the following online classes every three years: (a) Sudden Cardiac Arrest, (b) Heat Illness Prevention, and (c) Concussions in Sports. In an email exchange with NSAA Assistant Director Ron Higdon, Mr. Higdon emphasized that the Sudden Cardiac Arrest course discusses the importance of an emergency action plan and having access to an AED.
At the August 2023 NSAA Board of Directors' meeting, the Board updated their guidance, effective this academic year, recommending that all certified coaches be CPR/AED certified once every two years. That recommendation becomes a requirement for all certified coaches beginning in the 2024/2025 school year.
Middle school and youth cross country athletic events are not under the purview of the NSAA. However, it appears that Millard Public Schools has applied most, if not all, of these requirements to their middle school coaching ranks. Whether they were guided by a formal emergency action plan or the knowledge gained from attending the annual MPS CPR classes for coaches, it's clear that Juli, Amanda and all of the other MPS staff involved in the incident were fully prepared for the moment.
Is it better to have a cardiac arrest at a cross country meet or a business school event? I wouldn’t choose either option.
However, we’re telling this story to share Juli’s plea, which is echoed by Dawn: learn how to perform CPR. To that we’ll add a second request: if possible, have an AED at every cross country meet.
The day before I published this article, I posted a Twitter poll asking coaches who hosted meets to indicate what services they have on site. Out of 83 responses, 58% of coaches indicated they have an AED and medical personnel (paramedic, doctor, nurse or trainer) on site for meets, 31% have medical personnel but no AED, 6% have an AED but no medical personnel, and 4 of the 83 coaches indicated they had neither at their meets. Our follower base is skewed towards Class A and B schools, so it's possible that the 'neither' response in the poll is understated given the high cost of AEDs and the limited number of medical personnel in small towns.
AEDs cost several thousand dollars and most schools will need multiple units to cover all of their buildings and activities. However, new AEDs are so advanced that some models provide verbal directions to whomever is using it, allowing non-medical individuals to work in tandem with a 911 operator to provide effective care. During my time as Nerd, I’ve been to rural courses that are miles away from the nearest small town that is, at best, supported by a volunteer fire department. At meets like those, an AED might be the only way someone survives what Memphis encountered.
What are the chances that another Nebraska runner will have suffer cardiac arrest at a meet this season? The odds are low. However, cross country venues are filled with parents and grandparents who are higher risks for a cardiac event, particularly after they've chased their athlete around the course.
Hold a fundraiser. Apply for a grant. Buy an AED. Develop an emergency action plan. Be prepared.
The stars could not have aligned more perfectly for Memphis:
· An ambulance was parked three blocks away.
· The area where Memphis collapsed, where Juli Gray and Amanda Taylor were standing, can’t be seen from the finish line. He collapsed in front of a row of parked cars that obscured any view of him from the park road. He was too far away from Q Street to have been noticed by passing cars.
· He was with two friends at the back of a race. He could have been alone.
· The MPS staff reacted decisively and had an AED at Memphis's side within two minutes of his fall.
· If Memphis had fallen five minutes later, Dawn Davis would not have been in the park.
· Dawn is not only a nurse; she was an emergency room nurse until six years ago. She is in a different nursing role now but has continued to recertify in advanced life saving skills. Until the day she encountered Memphis, she hadn’t performed CPR since she left the ER.
Juli, Amanda and the other MPS staff minimize the role they played, to the point that I was initially asked to omit their names from the article. In the past two weeks they’ve asked themselves repeatedly if they did enough. Did they help the situation or make it worse? How do nurses, doctors and paramedics cope when they repeatedly face life-altering situations like this, when this one encounter with Memphis has left them reeling?
We can’t answer those questions, but the Zabawas have something to tell you.
You saved their son’s life. Every single one of you.
You are forever part of their story.
First published at www.preprunningnerd.com by Jay Slagle on September 21, 2023.
If you think runners, jumpers and throwers are the best things on earth, you'll enjoy our two most popular articles. In 2018 we published "The Runner with the Broken Heart" about a high school boy who finished last in nearly every race he ran. In 2022 we published, "The Fall and Rise of Emmett Hassenstab," a story about a high school triple jumper who became a quadrapalegic after a swimming accident.
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