Benefield: Sonoma County man who collapsed on soccer field aided by quick acting teammates

A man collapsed on a Santa Rosa soccer field. He’s still here because someone knew what to do.|

Meredith Freed was on the field at Sports City at Epicenter in Santa Rosa when she knew something was wrong.

Freed was playing indoor soccer, in a coed game of players 30 and older.

She remembers the score being 2-1. It was just before halftime.

“I hear this commotion on the visitor side,” she said. “It was, ‘We need help! We need help!’”

In the visitors team box, off of the field, a player had gone down.

Freed, an intensive care nurse at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, found Mark Hays, 55, on the ground. He was conscious but not alert.

“His team member had kind of guided him to the ground,” Freed remembered. “His eyes were rolled in the back of his head. He looked like he was having a seizure. He looked altered. We laid him flat and as soon as we laid him down, he no longer had a pulse. He’s no longer breathing.”

Freed and a second medical professional, who was also playing in the game, began CPR. A third player, a nurse like Freed, took charge of finding the AED — automated external defibrillator — device.

Time was clearly of the essence. Hays was in cardiac arrest.

“There wasn’t any delay,” Freed said. “It was very obvious that it was going poorly. When someone goes down, you are there, you are right there, to help out. You go help your team.”

Freed, a seasoned ICU nurse who can’t count the number of times she’s given CPR, said it felt different there on a soccer field, with her teammates instead of fellow nurses, amid the chaos of an athletic event instead of surrounded hospital monitors.

“I didn’t have my monitors, and I didn’t have my people,” Freed said.

But, in a way, she did.

There were no fewer than three health care professionals on the field at that point.

And there were two AEDs in the building, one just outside the field where Hays had collapsed.

The device was at Hays’ side within seconds, witnesses said.

“I’m just so thankful everything was where it should have been,” Freed said.

Once activated, the AED gives voice instructions.

They lifted Hays’ jersey up so they could affix the device to his chest. Everyone cleared away and the AED administered a shock to Hays’ heart.

They continued compressions.

“After like a minute and a half he started waking up, moving around,” Freed said. “Then he had a solid pulse. He was starting to talk.”

And then, Hays, who coaches the varsity girls soccer team at Healdsburg High and has played soccer since he was 5, started saying he was fine.

“He said, ‘I’m OK,” Freed said. He tried to sit up.

But clearly, he wasn’t.

“I told him he passed out because I didn’t want to freak him out,” she said.

Hays said he remembers little about that night. He recalled talking to teammates, waiting to reenter the game.

The next thing he recalled was seeing the face of a teammate.

That teammate, who asked that her name not be used, said she understood that amid the chaos and fear, for Hays to recognize a face would be calming.

Hays, who got out of the hospital Tuesday, with a surgically installed defibrillator in his chest, said he was still making his way through memories of the night.

He knows there is footage available via Sports City, but he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

“I thought about watching the video but I don’t think I could watch it,” he said.

He knows so many people came to his aid, but he doesn’t know the full story. He was worried about leaving anyone out of his gratitude.

“I don’t know all of the details of who did what,” he said. “I just want to make sure I thank everybody who helped me.”

Jenny Ogston, general manager of Epicenter, said the facility has had two AED devices on site since they opened in 2016.

“My understanding is that when they first came out, it was something that was really important to have in the facility just in case,” she said. “We have used them more than once, but it’s very, very rare.”

Ogston said she reviewed footage of Hays’ collapse and the all hands on deck response.

“The paramedics were here in less than five minutes,” she said. “It was the best possible outcome.”

Freed, who normally opts out of late Friday night games because of her 5 a.m. Saturday start time at the hospital, said she was grateful for the AED devices, for everyone playing a role, for Hays’ recovery.

She got to the hospital early the next day to find Hays.

“He looked so good for what he’d been through,” she said. “He said his chest was sore and I said, ‘I’m sorry about that.’”

Still sore, Hays said doctors cleared him to play soccer again when it feels right.

“I’m going to take some time, ease back into it,” he said. “I think it’ll be a bit.”

Meantime, he had plans for his twin granddaughters’ birthday party this weekend.

When he thinks about what he’s been through and the friends and strangers who jumped in to aid him, he is deeply moved.

“To think (they) saved my life and making it so I could be there for some of these things,” he said. “It was pretty emotional for me.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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