Benefield: SRJC swimmer who suffered cardiac arrest in pool saved by quick action of teammates, coaches

Morgan DeSalvo had just finished a drill at an early March practice when he began feeling unwell. Before he could even get out of the pool, he slipped beneath the water, unconscious.|

Morgan DeSalvo had just finished freestyle sprints during a Santa Rosa Junior College swim practice. It was March 5 - the day before the team was to compete in a tri-meet with Las Positas and Sierra colleges in Livermore.

It was an elimination drill and he and some other swimmers hung onto the wall waiting for three other swimmers to finish. DeSalvo, a 21-year-old freshman on the team, did not feel well.

“It felt like I worked out so hard I needed to throw up,” he said.

He tried to pull himself out of the water. He couldn’t. He tried to reach the arm of teammate Megan Ference, with whom DeSalvo had lifeguarded last summer. He couldn’t.

He remembers thinking, “OK, this is happening,” before blacking out and slipping beneath the surface.


“WE WERE IN lane five,” Ference, a freshman, said. The drill was difficult.

“It was full throttle,” she said. “I was huffing and puffing. He was huffing and puffing.”

Ference was talking with teammate and fellow freshman Jada Andrews. She saw DeSalvo go under the water, but it was not unusual. He could have been clearing his goggles, blowing bubbles - anything, she said. But after some time, nobody can remember quite how long, sophomore Katie Morrison felt DeSalvo’s hand brush up against her leg, which was unusual.

“She called out, ‘Megan, ?Megan, Megan, he’s not OK. He needs help,’” Ference said. Morrison had ahold of DeSalvo’s elbow.

“I dropped underwater in a squat,” Ference said. She lifted his head above the water, hooked her arms under DeSalvo’s armpits and made sure his head was resting on her shoulder above the water.

“He’s 6-feet, 180. I’m 5-3, 110. He was full weight,” she said. “I was on my tippy toes leaning up against the lane line. I’m screaming at Jill.”


HEAD SWIM COACH Jill McCormick was watching the three swimmers still in the sprint relay. When she looked to lane five and saw Ference struggling to hold DeSalvo’s head above water, the alarm bells went off.

“I immediately said, ‘It’s his heart,’” she said.

DeSalvo was born with aortic stenosis - the narrowing of his aortic valve which prevents it from opening fully and which ends up blocking blood flow from the heart to the rest of the body. He had special clearance from cardiologists to play non-contact sports as a kid and to swim at the JC.

They had to get DeSalvo out of the water. McCormick called to head assistant coach Tyler Denize, who, as is his usual practice, was walking around the pool deck with a length of PVC pipe in his hand. He had just checked on assistant coach Nolan Stimple, who was working with a group of swimmers in the outdoor pool.

“I didn’t actually hear a cry for help,” Stimple said. “I heard the PVC pipe hit the ground. I saw (Denize’s) ?red shirt running through the windows and I was like, ‘Uh oh.’ If Tyler is running, something is up.”

“Tyler ripped Morgan out of the pool all by himself,” Stimple said. “He was very pale. He was just lifeless.”

DeSalvo was not breathing.

Stimple, who just completed emergency medical technician training in December, starting directing the action.

“I felt for a carotid pulse. I didn’t feel anything and I thought, ‘This can’t be right, there is no way this kid’s heart has stopped,’” he said. “I did it the old-fashioned way and put my head to his chest and listened for a couple of seconds. We are in the middle of a swim set and this kid’s heart should be thumping pretty loud.”


“I think, ‘Is that it?’ No, that’s me. That’s my blood pressure starting to rise,” he said.


“I WAS AT his head. I was listening to Nolan,” Denize said.

“He did 30 compressions and then he breathed in his mouth twice with no mask. We definitely saw the air go in like you are supposed to,” Denize said.

Denize was stabilizing DeSalvo’s head and clearing his airway when fluid came up.

Stimple remembers little, other than what was directly in front of him.

“I could see Tyler’s hands. I remember counting. I could vaguely hear Jill ordering people around to do stuff,” he said.

It was at about that moment that Ference - running at a full sprint - reached head athletic trainer Dr. Monica Ohkubo’s office.

Ohkubo remembers the time, 4:25 p.m., because she was taping a basketball player and recalls worrying that he would be late for practice.

“This swimmer comes running in in her two-piece, ?soaking wet, yelling, ‘Monica! Monica! Now. AED. Now.’ She only said one word and I knew, it was not good,” Ohkubo said.

When Ohkubo reached the pool deck, she found Stimple performing CPR, Denize keeping DeSalvo’s airway open and McCormick unboxing the AED machine.

“Monica puts her hand on my back and said, ‘I’m here,’” McCormick said. “I turned to her and said, ‘Can you do this?’ and she says, ‘Yes.’”

Ohkubo’s arrival was calming, Stimple said.

“It was a relief that Monica has the AED,” he said. “Things are in motion; it’s not just us trying to get Morgan back.”

It should be noted that it was Ohkubo, early in her tenure as head athletic trainer some 13 years ago, who was a lead player in the push to install AED machines not only near sports facilities, but all over campus. Ohkubo put the AED pads on DeSalvo’s chest. Stimple stopped the compressions.

“This robotic voice comes on and it says, ‘Analyzing,’ and ‘Do not touch the patient,’” Stimple said. “The whole pool deck goes silent waiting for this AED.”

Finally, the robotic voice says: “Shock advised.” Ohkubo pressed the button.

The effect was immediate. DeSalvo’s body lurched, his eyes opened and he coughed. His heart began beating.

Everyone hovering over DeSalvo in that moment remembered that wait feeling like forever. But when they looked at the AED machine later, the time that elapsed between when the box was opened and when Ohkubo hit the shock button was just 58 seconds.

The coaches resumed CPR for one, maybe two, cycles until the ambulance arrived.


AS THIS WAS unfolding on the pool deck, a group of swimmers ran to the parking lot to unhook and separate a section of construction fencing so that the ambulance could drive closer to the pool. When paramedics arrived, McCormick told them of DeSalvo’s heart condition, about being underwater, the lack of a heartbeat, the AED machine.

DeSalvo was now talking, but it was largely gibberish.

The medics hooked DeSalvo up to their electrocardiogram - EKG - machine. The machine assessed the strength of DeSalvo’s heartbeat and shot out its result on a slip of paper that looked like a receipt.

“It comes out and he holds it up and shows it to another paramedic and they are like, immediately, ‘We are going to take him now,’” Stimple said. “He’s not back to normal by any means. His heart is not beating in any quality way.”


DESALVO, WITH MCCORMICK following behind in her own car, was supposed to be taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. When McCormick got there, no DeSalvo. She discovered he had been rerouted to Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital. And all the while, McCormick had been trying to reach DeSalvo’s parents. She later found out they were out of the country.

This all unfolded on March 5, just as the coronavirus was taking hold in Sonoma County. McCormick had to be cleared to enter the hospital. By the time she reached DeSalvo, he was alert, talking and, best yet, smiling.

“I get back there and he’s attached to all these bells and whistles, but he looks like Morgan,” she said. “He smiles at me and he’s like ‘Coach, I don’t think I’m going to be at the meet tomorrow.’”

McCormick cries as she retells it.


DESALVO ALWAYS KNEW he would have to have surgery on his heart to fix that valve. But it’s hard to ask for open heart surgery and DeSalvo, who has no intention of giving up swimming and surfing or anything he loves to do, was waiting for the best possible science to offer him the best possible outcome.

March 5 forced his hand.

After he was airlifted to UCSF, DeSalvo’s medical team had to wait for the fluid to clear from his lungs. But with the coronavirus bearing down, DeSalvo chose the Ozaki procedure, in which surgeons build a new valve with his existing healthy tissue.

“I could tell the difference in my heartbeat right away,” he said. “I could tell I had more energy. I felt more alive. I could notice a heavy difference already.”

He was visited in San Francisco by coaches. He has had Zoom meetings with teammates. He’s back at school taking online classes at SRJC, just like everyone else under the shelter-in-place rules.

On April 2, he celebrated his 22nd birthday.

He can’t lift anything more than 10 pounds for the time being and has to wear an AED vest at all times. For 60 days, it will monitor his heartbeat and shock him if his heart falls out of rhythm.

But if DeSalvo has a complaint, I didn’t hear it. He’s talking about his goal times in the breaststroke next season for the Bear Cubs.


IN THE DAYS and weeks since March 5, the coaches have gone over, again and again, how the afternoon unfolded. There is a level of trauma in going through something like that. And a lot of questions. They have had to counsel each other to a degree.

What if Morrison hadn’t seen DeSalvo at the bottom of the pool? What if Ference wasn’t strong enough to get his head above water? What if Stimple hadn’t just finished his EMT training or Denize couldn’t get him out of the water or they couldn’t, in a collective panic, figure out the AED machine? What if.

But none of those things happened. All of those years of CPR re-certification classes paid off. Their bodies, their minds knew what to do when an athlete lay stricken.

In one way, DeSalvo knows nothing of what unfolded. He doesn’t remember a thing before the ambulance ride. But in another way, he knows everything. It’s written in the scar on this chest and it sounds in the beating of his heart.

“Everything they did, they did perfectly,” he said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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