Emiria Salzmann Dunn looked into her player’s eyes, but they weren’t looking back. Courtney Shoda’s eyes were wide open but unfocused. Blank. Staring straight ahead into the vastness of nothing. Emiria blew into her face. No blinking. No response. Emiria called her name. No response. A chill came upon her.
Emiria was struggling to assimilate what had happened. Less than two minutes before, no more than that, the coach of SSU’s women’s soccer team had watched as Courtney received a ball at her chest, let it drop and kicked it skillfully into the net. It was Sept. 1 and the team was in Arcata, at a tournament at Humboldt State. It was a Friday practice between games. The team had just done a jog and a little stretching. The moment was as nondescript, maybe even forgettable, as a light, casual workout can be.
“Keep playing like that,” Salzmann-Dunn told Courtney after the goal. Courtney ran past her coach. Emiria stood facing the net. The coach had no reason to look back. The ball Courtney took to her chest came to her softly as if it was lobbed from five feet. As benign as having her stop a pillow with her chest.
“Emiria! Emiria! Emiria! Look at Courtney!” The coach rotated sharply and saw something that will stay with her for the rest of her days. Courtney was face down. Her arms behind her. Her nose, her entire face even, was pressed into the turf, not above it. As if pushed. By the heavy hand of gravity.
“I didn’t know what I was seeing,” Emiria said. “When I blew into her face, it felt like I was blowing into the face of a statue.”
Mark Dunn was summoned. Mark is Emiria’s husband and the goalkeeper coach for SSU. He is also the captain of the Rincon Valley Fire District, a firefighter for 26 years. He estimates he’s performed CPR 200 times. He also estimates, rather quietly, that he’s had a successful result “maybe 20 times. No more than that.”
After Courtney was rolled onto her back, after Emiria failed in making her respond, after Emiria found a faint and sporadic pulse Mark and Emiria began CPR. Assistant coach Margi Osmundson called 911 on her cell and then ran to a nearby campus security phone to alert police and fire.
Courtney was gasping for a breath every five to six seconds. It’s called agonal breathing. It is, as described by one medical reference, someone “actively dying.” Mark never said that and neither did Emiria, but what she saw — the color in Courtney’s face and eyes were changing — were all the clues anyone needed.
“COME ON, COURTNEY, STAY WITH US!” she shouted. Over and over Emiria shouted that and for anyone who knows this coach knows she is passionate and emotional and direct as anyone. This was very personal for her and her husband. Mark had known Courtney for six years, had recruited her out of Torrance in Southern California. And Emiria makes no bones about being the mother hen. Her players are her children.
That’s why, in this column, after first reference, it’s Emiria and Mark and Courtney and Margi throughout. This story deserves such intimacy. This story deserves that respect.
“Not on my watch is this going to happen,” Emiria kept saying to herself. She knew CPR but never had to do it. She followed Mark’s instructions perfectly. For two minutes Mark did the chest compressions, attempting to keep the beat of a heart 80 to 100 times a minute. Emiria clasped Courtney’s nose and forced a breath into her mouth once for approximately every 30 chest compressions.
“The accepted and proper practice is just to do the chest compressions,” Mark said. “That’s because, usually, you’re alone. But in this case Emiria was there and ...”
And a pause, followed by, “When you see this, it’s likely a code.”
For two minutes, husband and wife worked in tandem. They had motioned for Margi to back the players up a bit. “I didn’t want them to be too close to see this,” Emiria said. The players then formed a circle and started praying.
The couple stopped CPR to check the pulse. It was stronger, steady. Once a pulse is strong, Mark said, you stop compression and continue rescue air. Mark took over the forced air.
In less than two minutes came a moment the couple will remember long after they forget their first names.
Courtney took her first breath. Almost like an explosion it was. A burst. Spittle arrived at the same time.
“When Courtney took that breath,” Emiria said, “she wasn’t just breathing life into herself. She was breathing life into me.”
For Mark? The firefighter. The man who’s been seen it all, felt it all. The man with 26 years of moments like this one, when life and death battle for dominance, expanding seconds into hours. What say you, Mark?
He spoke so softy, I almost had to ask him to speak up. He paused halfway through his answer.
“It was the best breath ... I ever saw.”
“Exhilaration” is a much too tepid word to describe what he was feeling. Rather, Mark found a better way to explain the moment.
“I’ve been there for the occasional childbirth,” he said. “That’s pretty amazing. But that’s about it (for a more satisfying feeling).”
They probably had to get a squeegee out there on the soccer field, to push all the tears to the sidelines. The ambulance had arrived and took Courtney to Mad River Community Hospital in Arcata. All this occurred in the space of five minutes.
“I remember voices,” Courtney said. She doesn’t remember the ball hitting her chest, the kick or the fall. Those voices, however faint, are the only connection she had that trauma. Later that night at the hospital he became a bit more responsive.
“Where am I? What happened?” Courtney asked team captains Miriam Bloom and Cecilia Sifuentes. They told her she was at Humboldt, that she fell, that CPR was performed.
A minute would pass.
“Where am I? What happened?” Courtney asked again.
And again. And again. And again. Same question. Same answer. Her body had become alive again. Her mind was trying to catch up, sifting through the fog. Emiria would be at her bedside throughout her stay at Mad River and was there the moment Courtney became more coherent. Sort of.
“She thought she was at SSU, playing a game, and apologizing for something she thought she should have done,” Emiria said. “She said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ That’s Courtney. She never wants to be a problem. That’s why the coaches and players love her so much. She’s the perfect teammate.”
Her memory of that day, as she said, “is their memory.”
She was flown that night to Kaiser hospital in Santa Rosa where she began a battery of tests and doctor visits. A senior kinesiology major, Courtney wants to be a doctor. She experienced an elevated course of study, so to speak, with everything being examined but maybe not her hair follicles. She was given a genetic MRI. It was normal. She wore a defibrillator for month. She wore a heart monitor for a month. All tests were normal.
So what happened?
“Nobody can give me a solid answer,” she said. “This has never happened before to a women’s soccer player.”
The explanation she was given: Courtney experienced commotio cordis, a condition so rare it can only be explained with a disbelieving head-shake. Her heart received an abrupt blow during the nano-second the heart contracts, recharging itself. Part of the heart recharges while the rest of the organ waits to be recharged.
So while she thinks from time to time about the nebulous explanation, Courtney rather enjoys quite different thoughts. Like every time she sees Mark. They hug. Then they speak. And there’s the text, the one she sent last week, the one Mark will never delete. He turned 50 and she didn’t congratulate him for turning 50.
At the end it read: “You were brought into my life for a reason. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.” His response: I was doing my job. Emiria’s response: It was the perfect response to a quite imperfect situation.
“There were the right people at the right time at the right place with the right medical staff,” Emiria said.
She forget to use the word “lucky.” Mark makes only 30-40 percent of SSU’s practices, because of his day job and the couple’s very active 3-year-old, Aleph. SSU’s players are aware of such infrequency.
“While we were in the waiting room at the (Mad River) hospital,” Mark said, “I became aware that all the players were suddenly staring at me. One of them came over and said, ‘Mark, you can never miss another practice!’ ”
Mark may have been at the center of the incident, may have been the force that had everyone pulling in the same direction. His calmness settled everyone. But his wife, forever the team player, will stand beside them, not in front of the group.
“It was everyone working together perfectly,” she insists. “I don’t need anyone to pat me on the back.”
Well, guess what? Emiria received that pat. On Nov. 28, Sonoma State gave its first Valor Award to the three coaches who saved Courtney’s life.
Despite the public recognition, the recipients will remember Dec. 1 before all other dates, even Sept. 1.
The SSU women had finished another successful season, going 15-5. There were no more games to be played. Courtney had missed the entire season and was only cleared to play after it was completed.
Her mates needed to give her some love. They already had printed the T-shirts with a heart and her number (22) on them with these words: “We Got Your Back.” She was on the sideline for every game and every practice, a water girl running out the liquid to freshmen and seniors alike.
We need to do more, her teammates thought. So let’s have a practice. It won’t affect the season, but it will affect us. So everyone showed up Dec. 1. Just for Courtney.
“I have never felt so appreciated,” she said. “They didn’t have to show up. But they did. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.”
Her smile, their smile, is her takeaway from his senior season. This practice, these teammates, those coaches, Courtney had a great senior season. She didn’t play, but she lived. She beat the odds. With a lot of help from her friends. When it comes to victories, everything else finishes last.
To comment on Bob Padecky’s column write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.