Sudden cardiac arrest 'No. 1 fear' in the gym

By John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal

Two close friends of Norris Ashley have died while they were coaching their respective teams.
While Ashley isn’t sure what could have been done to save Walnut football coach Joe Horton and Potts Camp basketball coach Carl White when they suffered heart attacks – Horton suffered a fatal heart attack at halftime of the 2000 Walnut-Falkner football game; White died eight years earlier in between the Potts Camp-Blue Mountain girls and boys basketball games – he and other coaches are prepared to come to the rescue if a coach, player or fan suffers a similar health scare in the middle of a game.
“It’s mandatory in Union County that we get certified in CPR and learn how to work a defibrillator,” said Ashley, 63, who just finished his 42nd season as a high school boys basketball coach.
After watching Monday’s NBC “Nightly News” program, the longtime Ingomar coach couldn’t help but think back to when Horton and White passed away. He also reflected back on his two daughters – who both played varsity high school basketball but are five years apart in age – having a sudden and rapid heart beat during their respective senior years, but both undergoing ablations in Birmingham to reestablish a normal heart rhythm and be able to resume their seasons.
A story last aired Monday evening about the sudden passing of a Michigan high school star boys basketball player, who collapsed moments after hitting a game-winning shot on March 3.
Wes Leonard, a 16-year-old junior at Fennville High, died later that night of cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.
Since that night, three more teenagers in the United States have died from sudden cardiac arrest, according to the website
From watching the NBC news program and from his own experiences, the Ingomar coach understands how difficult it is to detect potential life-threatening heart conditions.
“Some of these things are so hard to detect,” said Ashley, who suffered a heart attack – not while coaching, though – in 1993. “Most of the time they’re found out on the autopsy table. … In 1993 my chest never hurt; it was my stomach that hurt.”
So when Leonard said on a video interview two weeks ago that he hadn’t been feeling well but was still going to play in a game – because that’s what NBA stars Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Michael Jordan did when suffering from the flu or a bad cold – did anyone at that point think that the high school athlete had a serious problem that warranted medical attention?
“That’s the No. 1 fear of any coach who hangs a whistle around his neck,” Ashley said about determining whether an athlete should be sidelined because he isn’t feeling well. “We hope and keep our fingers crossed that nothing happens. … But you’re kind of caught between a rock and a hard place.
“You don’t want to get people scared or afraid to move.”
And in other words, you don’t want athletes – who are healthy enough to run in the first place – to get out of running sprints because they’re claiming to be not feeling well, said the veteran coach.
Precautionary measures
According to, nearly one in 250,000 young American athletes die of sudden death or cardiac arrest.
“You’re much more likely to die in a car wreck,” Ashley said.
Still, says Ashley, referring to Monday’s NBC news segment, you can’t just ignore any symptoms involving the vital organs, and that is why the preseason physicals are so important.
While an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) – an exam that tests for problems with the electrical activity of the heart – generally costs around $25, an echocardiogram – which utilizes ultrasound to look at the heart and nearby blood vessels – costs between $250 and $500.
So for an athlete to get his heart checked, it certainly can be expensive, but “you don’t want to remiss and not do something,” said Ashley.
Michael Smith, the coach of the 2011 MHSAA Class 3A state champion Booneville Blue Devils, had a player who had been complaining of chest pains. The player visited a cardiologist and was cleared to play.
“He has what is called an athletic murmur,” Smith said about his player’s condition. “It’s very common among athletes and it’s nothing to be alarmed by. It’s just something he has had for a long time. A lot of kids his age have it and a lot of times it goes undetected.
“He’ll grow out of it and there’s no limitations on him. There’s nothing long term.”
Smith and Co. weren’t going to take any chances and allow his player to continue to play without first seeing a doctor.
“You gotta treat other people’s kids the way you want yours to be treated,” said the Booneville coach. “You want people to err on the side of caution.”
If it comes to it…
Dr. Kellan Ashley, now a cardiologist in Cleveland, Ohio, once asked her father if the Ingomar school has a defibrillator – an electronic device used to restore the regular rhythm of the heart through electric shock. As it turns out, the Union County school does and her father – just like the other Ingomar coaches – has been trained to operate it.
Not to mention, whenever Mark Porter, a certified athletic trainer, attends an Ingomar athletic event, he’ll bring a defibrillator with him.
In the Booneville School District, there are five defibrillators – at least one in a central location in each of the three schools: the elementary, middle and high schools – thanks to the generosity of Baptist Memorial Hospital-Booneville.
In the gymnasium where the Blue Devils play their basketball games, there’s an automated external defibrillator located on the wall of a corridor near the front entrance of the gym. The certified athletic trainer for Booneville also carries one with home to every basketball game, said Smith, who is trained every two years on how to administer an AED and is also CPR certified, a requirement for coaches at the Mississippi High School Activities Association’s member schools.
While the MHSAA currently doesn’t require its member schools to have a defibrillator at athletic events – although, it is recommended by the association in its handbook – many schools in Mississippi have them, according to MHSAA executive director elect Don Hinton.
That’s impressive considering the cost of an AED – and, in addition, the cost to train people on how to use one – and the budget crunches schools in the state have had; according to the, many AEDs cost between $1,500 and $2,000.
However, there are foundations and charities willing to assist with the costs of an AED or simply donate one. The Weston Reed Foundation, created in memory of an 11-year-old soccer player who died from cardiac arrest, has raised money and donated AEDs to schools, parks and non-profit organizations around Tupelo and Lee County.
“It’s something you hope you never need (to use),” said Booneville High athletic director and assistant football coach Rick Coggin. “It’s also something you definitely want in case something happens.”
Even though Booneville High School has been fortunate enough to not have to use one at an athletic event, the school still checks the AEDs frequently and recently updated them this past summer, according to Coggin.
“The pads have to be changed very often,” added Smith.
All of that is very important because you never know when you’ll have a circumstance similar to the one that followed a high school basketball game in Michigan last week.
“That was so tragic,” Coggin said of Leonard dying after he made a game-winning shot. “That’s something that you just hope and pray never occurs.”
Contributing: Michaela Gibson Morris; Contact John Wilbert at 678-1572 or

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