SoccerFest is the marquee event for USASA, featuring over 100 adult teams from across the country and beyond. The 2017 edition, hosted by USASA in Nashville Tennessee, kicked off on Wednesday, July 12th in typical hot and humid weather for that region. The temperature reached into the low 90s, and the added humidity made playing conditions challenging, especially during the midday hours.
That was the setting for a man from Texas to meet four women soccer players from Massachusetts in circumstances which can only be described as miraculous. The four players used teamwork and calmness under pressure to save a life. Their story exemplifies how the ideals and lessons of working together as a team under pressure are used in real-life situations – sometimes in situations involving the highest stakes imaginable.
Fate placed these four heroic women from two different Massachusetts soccer clubs around Chris Le from Dallas in his most desperate minutes. Chris’s O-60 team had just finished playing. The Mass Spirit Women’s Elite Team was scheduled to play the next game on the very same field and began warming up. To the left of their field, two Massachusetts teams from the Baystate Breakers Club were changing fields. The O55 Breakers Team had just finished their game, while the O50 Breakers team was taking over the bench for their next game.
Dee Woolley, the goalie for the Mass Spirit Elite team, had already worked up a sweat warming up with a teammate, so she had headed to the sideline for a break before kickoff. She recalls, “A men’s team had completed their game on the field we were about to play on and some of their players were still on the bench under a small tent. I had my back to the tent when I heard yelling coming from behind me.”
One field over just about to kickoff, Lisa Knoppe Reed, a Baystate Breakers player, was the first to recognize that something was wrong. With 28 years on the National Ski Patrol, she was trained in advanced emergency care. She remembers, “I saw Chris collapse behind his bench. I immediately bolted toward him, jumping over my own bench to get to him. He was barely conscious. He was awkwardly laying behind his bench. I directed people to move the bench so that we didn't have to move Chris." Lisa requested EMS be called and that someone bring an AED from the medical tent.
Maureen “Mimi” O'Donoghue, one of the Breakers players who had just finished playing, was icing her knee and getting ready to watch the start of the next game. “I saw my friend Lisa race over to the tent of the game behind hers and wondered what was up. When I saw her move that fast I thought I should go check things out. When I got to the tent there was a lot of commotion and someone who identified themselves as a doctor was saying to give Chris space. Lisa was checking him out and looked very concerned so I went to help.”
The women suspected heat exhaustion or a heat stroke, but as they helped Chris to elevate his legs and loosen clothing, his color became grayer and grayer. Then he became unresponsive and started gasping. At this point, Mimi announced she could not palpate a pulse and she knew he was in cardiac arrest. Mimi and Lisa began CPR.
One of Dee’s Mass Spirit teammates, Vera Fajtova, an Endocrinologist, stepped forward. She took up a position to evaluate compressions and she maintained a carotid pulse check the rest of the event.
As an experienced ICU nurse of many years, Mimi remembers feeling, “My first instinct was to wish for my monitors and equipment that I am used to; I felt so helpless. But I know that strong compressions are the most important component of CPR and getting the AED as soon as possible.” Lisa and Mimi worked great as a team, and while Lisa moved to open Chris’s airway, Dee jumped in to help with compressions.
Although Dee is a trained nurse, she had only performed CPR one other time. However her extensive training clicked in immediately as she tried to give quality compressions. She was thrilled to hear her teammate, Vera, call out that the compressions were good.
The women worked as a team for several minutes before the golf cart with the AED arrived. Dee continued to give compressions while Mimi and Lisa attached the AED pads to Chris’s chest. They activated the AED and it indicated that a shock was necessary. Mimi and Lisa hit the shock button.
Unfortunately, there was no change in his condition, so the women started CPR again. Someone had delivered an airway, which they used to help ventilate Chris. All the while, the women continued to talk to him and encouraging him to come back to them. Dee remembers, “Lisa told him that someone was calling his wife at the hotel where she and their kids were staying. We kept up this banter hoping he could hear us.” About twelve minutes into the event, those at the field heard the faint sounds of an ambulance siren.
Vera recalls, “I think we were all in a zone. There were some important moments when Chris rallied, pinked up and gasped, which made us all the more determined to keep on trying, talking, encouraging him and each other.”
Lisa continued to talk to him and call him by name. She was calling him back to life and talking about his family. After the second shock, Chris started to flicker his eyes and then opened them. Lisa remembers “At that moment his eyes shot open, looking at me point blank. I’m not sure what he thought but he responded to information about his wife.”
When they checked his pulse, it was strong and steady. “I was so excited, I asked him to squeeze my hand and he did, that moment I knew he was going to be okay,” Mimi reflected.
The EMTs arrived and quickly began getting Chris ready for transport. Dee recalls feeling a little shaky and hot, but she immediately noticed one of Chris’s teammates was distraught. She checked on him and he grabbed her in a bear hug and said thank you. Chris was his best friend and he was so worried. She assured him that Chris was in great hands and then he hurried to see if he could ride with Chris in the ambulance until his wife arrived.
Many people and bystanders started approaching the women and thanking them. “It was a very touching and emotional time” remembers Mimi. “I felt such gratitude that we had been able to revive him and realized how traumatic and difficult it must have been for his teammates and friends to watch. I think about this experience and Chris and his family often, and it just confirms for me what I have learned from my years as a nurse, that you can't take anything for granted, carpe diem! And what a wonderful experience it is to be a part of a loving and supportive community in this ‘Beautiful Game’".
Scott Chaney, a longtime friend and teammate of Chris, had this to say, “We were all VERY fortunate that the women on the next field over were there as they worked on Chris for 20 minutes until the ambulance arrived. I was holding Chris’ head in my hands for the entire time they worked on him and I saw what I thought was going to be his last breath 4 or 5 times. As they worked on him we kept yelling at him to fight for his life and hang in there. Those ladies brought him back several times. They were truly a miracle and saved Chris’ life.”
Amazingly after Chris was in the care of the EMTs, the women then returned to the fields. Dee and Lisa jumped back on the pitch and played their games. Lisa entered her game and made an immediate impact. Ten minutes into the game, she sent a rocket of a shot into the upper corner of the net from about 25 feet out to score a goal for her team.
Dee recalls “I played as hard as I could and I blocked out what had just happened in order to focus on keeping the ball out of our net. We scored first but with a minute left in the game they scored. The game ended in a 1-1 tie.” Although Dee may have been down on herself for not making that one save, she made a much more important one before the game even started.
After the game, Dee headed over to the beer tent. She met up with Mimi on the walk and they were both surprised at how much they had in common, as Massachusetts soccer players and nurses. They quickly realized that they both worked for the same hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Mimi works in the Trauma ICU on our West Campus and Dee works in Obstetrics on the East Campus. “What a small world that we both worked at the same place and came together outside of Nashville, Tennessee to save a life,” Mimi and Dee shared.
Ironically, when Mimi returned home to Massachusetts, she found out that she was due ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) recertification. She passed and is continuing to do amazing work in the community and saving lives.
Lisa summed it up perfectly, “I'm thankful for having everyone around us quickly responding to Chris's needs. It truly was a team effort!”
Vera added, “I am proud to be a Massachusetts woman soccer player!”
Scott is happy to report that Chris is doing well and has had a full recovery. He has even rejoined his team and is back on the pitch with his doctor’s permission. Chris’s daughter and teammates have been in touch with Lisa and Mimi and have expressed their appreciation for all the women’s heroic lifesaving actions.
Footnote: In part due to this event and others, US Soccer have produced a CPR/AED Training video to help educate players, coaches, referees, and parents. This video is part of a comprehensive player safety module that will be included in all online Coaching and Referee Education courses. The video is currently available on the Recognize to Recover website, and specifically in the “Cardiac Conditions” section, and you can get to it via this link: http://www.recognizetorecover.org/cardiac/#cardiac-arrest