The National Federation of High School Associations reports on Waseca, MN HS save

With just 31 seconds left on the scoreboard clock, the Waseca (Minnesota) High School (WHS) football team was on the verge of a season-opening 21-13 victory over Big South Conference rival Saint Peter (Minnesota) High School. With the game in hand, Waseca head coach Brad Wendland walked to the bench to put away his headset, gathering his thoughts before his impending postgame address to his team.

Then, out of nowhere, a massive head rush overwhelmed Waseca’s 16-year-veteran coach as he turned back toward the sideline. Recognizing the intensity but not wanting to draw attention to himself, Wendland figured he would drop to a knee momentarily while his lightheadedness passed, then get back to his players.

“That was the last regular thought I had before I collapsed,” he said. “And my heart stopped for – my best guess is between four and five minutes.”

During those critical minutes, athletic trainers Troy Hoehn and Leah Rutz, along with an emergency-room nurse who came down from the bleachers, worked diligently to save the coach’s life. Hoehn, the supervisor athletic trainer at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, who also serves as athletic trainer for WHS’ sports teams, was first to arrive at Wendland’s side.

“He was probably 10 feet from me,” Hoehn said. “It was one of those situations where I just kind of looked down the sideline, and all of a sudden, there was somebody on the ground laying face-down. I ran over there and checked his responsiveness, and he wasn’t responding to me at that point, so I rolled him over so we could assess him better.”

Seconds later, Rutz, who works alongside Hoehn at Mayo Clinic as an athletic trainer and handles athletic training duties for Saint Peter, came running from the opposite side of the field.

“As soon as I saw Troy’s fingers go to (Wendland’s) throat to check his pulse, I went across,” she said. “And when I got there, I heard someone say, ‘we need an AED,’ so I went and grabbed that and started getting it ready.”

As Rutz prepared the AED – short for automated external defibrillator – the nurse performed chest compressions. Once the AED was primed with an appropriate charge, Rutz applied the electrode pads to Wendland’s chest and shocked his heart back into rhythm. Shortly after he awoke, an ambulance arrived to take him to Mankato, where he learned that he had suffered sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).

Unlike a heart attack, which is caused by a blood flow blockage, sudden cardiac arrest is defined by Mayo Clinic as the abrupt loss of heart function typically caused by a failure within the heart’s electrical system and is the third leading cause of death in the United States. The survival rate for people who experience sudden cardiac arrest outside of a hospital is just 10 percent.

Wendland also learned that had it not been for the quick response from Hoehn and Rutz, who were both dealing with SCA for the first time in their respective careers, his cardiac event almost certainly would have featured a tragic ending. Through their knowledge, composure and collaboration with other on-site medical personnel, the flow of oxygen to Wendland’s brain was restored in roughly four minutes, and narrowly avoided the 5-to-10-minute deprivation period that often leads to debilitating health issues, including death.

“I am here today because other people were prepared and other people were heroic,” Wendland said. “If they wouldn’t have been prepared, first of all, maybe I don’t come back. And secondly, if I go any longer without getting oxygen to my brain, maybe I no longer process information as well or I lose different bodily functions and I’m not quite the same as I was before. It could have been a life-changing event for me.”

“I don’t think it truly registered for me,” said Rutz. “I was aware of what was happening, I was acting, but I don’t think it fully dawned on me the skills we were using and what we were doing until I was walking back across the field afterwards. That’s when it hit me. While it was happening, I just went into autopilot.”

Hoehn and Rutz being on the sidelines also meant AEDs were in very close proximity, as both athletic trainers carry one with them at every game. And given the razor-thin margin for error in this case, that proximity was perhaps the most crucial factor in Wendland’s successful revival.

“A lot of our schools will tend to leave (their AEDs) in a shed or in a building off-site or off the field somewhere,” Hoehn said. “(Leah and I) had ours with us and I’m thankful that we keep them in the same place, so she knew to look in my vacuum splint bag. Seconds count in these situations and if we would have had to send somebody to run down to the other end of the field and get it, come back and then apply it, we probably would have been looking at anywhere from three to five minutes, potentially. And that could have changed our whole outcome.”

Wendland spent the next five days in the hospital being evaluated and had virtually no interaction with his players and staff as he underwent approximately 20 different cardiac assessments. Through the testing regimen, he was informed his SCA was the result of mitral annular disjunction (MAD), a condition stemming from a leak in his heart’s mitral valve. Thankfully, MAD can be “fixed” through a fairly common surgical procedure, which Wendland is scheduled to have completed on March 14.

In addition to working on his general health and having a small AED-like device implanted in his chest in case of a future incident, Wendland became incrementally more involved with his team’s preparation in each of the three weeks after his hospital stay. First, he hosted the offensive coaches for a game-planning meeting ahead of their Week 3 matchup with Tri-City United High School, then he attended the game against Fairmont High School and watched from the press box, and then called plays from the press box in Week 5 against Jordan High School.

Though his prescribed recovery still included plenty of rest, Wendland was dogged in his determination to make a full return to coaching – and teaching history at WHS – as soon as possible, not only for himself, but to embody the same message he iterates to his players at practice.

“How can I be the guy who tells kids, ‘you need to handle adversity and this is going to teach you how to do it’ and ‘we’re going to be there for you and you’re going to come out of this a better young man,’ and say all those things and then just sit at home for a month? What kind of an example would I be setting? I can’t do it. I needed to come back; it was healthier. It would have been less healthy for me to sit at home.”

And after completing a successful stress test on the treadmill under the watchful eyes of his doctors, he was given the go-ahead.

“It was great to be back, and how could I not be grateful?” Wendland said. “Many of the students were at the game (when the incident happened) so some of them were a little freaked out, but a lot of them just wanted to give me a hug. But it just felt great to be back. It felt like I was back where I should be.

“I always knew that Waseca was a special place to teach and coach and the response from the community and the school just reinforced that so much.”

Since enduring the cardiac episode that nearly claimed his life, Wendland has made it a point to advocate for CPR training and improved AED accessibility in the workplace, sporting events and other public places. He already has two speaking engagements lined up for the immediate future, including an appearance at the Minnesota Interscholastic Activities Administrators Association Conference in late March and at a 7-on-7 football tournament at Plainview-Elgin-Millville (Minnesota) High School, which tragically lost one of its football players to SCA several years ago.

“I will talk to anyone who wants to talk to me regarding this incident as long as part of the message is, ‘wherever you are, you need to have an AED available. Because I wouldn’t be here without one.’”

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