In the face of a medical emergency, Dale Wakasugi has simple, yet powerful advice for school administrators: “Do something . . . calmly, quickly and with purpose. Seconds are precious and minutes are the enemy.”
For Wakasugi, a resident of Woodbury, Minnesota, those elements have been the difference between living and perishing on a gym floor in the line of duty as a basketball official.
The longtime former official collapsed with cardiac arrest twice during games in a three-year period. The first cardiac episode came in 2007, and the second in November of 2010. During each medical emergency, he was the beneficiary of swift, life-saving actions that have served as a springboard to sharing his personal journey and an affirmation to a commitment to educating all on preparedness when faced with a medical emergency.
“I think my story gives my teaching and testimonial a personal touch,” he said. “My message hits home with people. I like to talk about it, actually. It gives so much credibility to what I am trying to achieve in educating everyone on CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), and the use of AEDs (automated external defibrillator).”
Wakasugi, formerly in pharmaceutical sales, is the founder of a company that specializes in CPR training courses and management of AEDs. He is a proponent of officials being proactive prior to their assignments. Little steps, he says, can be the difference between seconds and minutes during medical emergencies.
Following are some of those steps and how athletic administrators can assist in connecting with officials:
While officials are independent contractors and not required to supply any medical information, Wakasugi believes activities administrators would be appreciative and supportive of a process or concept that garners as much information as possible that can be implemented during a medical emergency.
“If you’re an administrator, wouldn’t you want to be fully prepared, to have your emergency-action plan well thought out?” Wakasugi said. “The worst thing that can happen is standing around because no one was quite sure what to do. If you are an ambulance driver or EMT, the worst thing you want to see when you turn a corner are people huddled around someone, and not doing anything.”
The quick actions of educated and trained individuals contributed to Wakasugi’s survival during his two on-court collapses. On December 13, 2007 in the closing minutes of a game at Fridley (Minnesota) High School, the 49-year-old Wakasugi collapsed on the court. Lindsey Paradise, a Fridley junior, dashed from the stands and started CPR. Meanwhile, a site supervisor was getting an AED from the wall of the gymnasium. Paradise hit the AED button, and one shock later, Wakasugi was revived back to life.
Paradise had learned how to perform CPR and operate an AED just three weeks prior in a health class. One year prior, the Minnesota State High School League and the Medtronic Foundation created “Anyone Can Save A Life,” a program that trains coaches, as well as empowers students, to be part of the response when a medical emergency situation occurs.
“We are grateful that we were participating in the (MSHSL’s) program at the time,” said Dan Roff, Fridley activities director. “It was a life-saver. Truly.”
Wakasugi had suffered his first heart attack in 1995 at age 36. The blockage of his left anterior descending artery was because of heredity, he said, and didn’t warrant a stent. Instead, diet and exercise were prescribed.
But after his collapse at Fridley, three stents were inserted as well as an implantable cardio defibrillator. He was given medical clearance to return to officiating, and he was back on the court on February 4, 2008.
“It was a passion of mine, of course, so I was ecstatic to be back doing something I love,” he said. “The doctors told me the heart was a muscle and the harder you work it, the stronger it would get. I took that literally. I was officiating year-round, maybe 400-500 games a year. I felt like I was in the best shape of my life.”
He had another collapse, however, in late November of 2010. From the time he went down to the moment medical personnel reached him with an AED, he figures it was about 40 seconds. The AED wasn’t needed because his defibrillator was activated.
“Before the game, there was some joking around from people asking, “You aren’t going to go down on us, are you?” Wakasugi said with a chuckle. “When I did, there were administrators, site supervisors and trainers that were well-trained and knew what they were doing.”
Last winter, Wakasugi suffered a minor stroke in downtown Minneapolis. While he was being transported to the hospital, Wakasugi was disoriented, but was able to share that medical information was in his wallet.
While Wakasugi’s second collapse led to his retirement from officiating, he said he now gets just as excited with the triumphs that relate to his teaching. When one of his CPR students share the details of a successful life-saving effort, he feels the same adrenaline, fist-pumping surge as when he made a call in a big game.
“I’m giving back now in a different way,” Wakasugi said. “It used to be service as an official, but now it is another way, one that is impacting lives. Cardiac arrest doesn’t happen that often, but we need to be prepared when it does. It is rewarding to be able to share and teach. I like that this topic is on the minds of administrators. That is a really good thing.”
Tim Leighton is communications director of the Minnesota State High School League, and he is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.