Danny Witbeck isn’t accustomed to sitting on the sidelines.
But the star player on Evart High School’s football, basketball, and baseball teams is spending the rest of this basketball season on the bench.
The 18-year-old senior is just glad to be alive, encouraging his teammates.
Looking back, Danny felt excited to go to basketball practice on Jan. 22. It felt like a normal Friday.
Until it wasn’t.
In the middle of a team workout, Danny collapsed.
His coach, third-grade teacher Kris Morgan, rushed to his side and found Danny unresponsive and breathing heavily.
Morgan began CPR while Danny’s teammates ran to retrieve one of the school’s two automated external defibrillators, or AEDs. The assistant coach quickly called 911.
And then it got worse.
“Once, his breathing almost stopped,” Morgan said. “I knew something major was going on.”
Fortunately, the coach, assistant coach and high school seniors were all trained in CPR and use of an AED.
It paid off.
By the time police and rescue teams arrived, Danny sat upright. He insisted he felt fine.
“The whole thing seemed to last forever, but it was maybe about five minutes tops, from start to finish,” Morgan said.
In the meantime, Danny’s parents, Torey and Katie, rushed to the school from the family farm. They had gotten a phone call from the middle school principal, a close friend who coincidentally stopped by the school in the middle of the life-and-death drama.
‘We totally say it’s a God thing,” Katie said. “He really orchestrated everything.”
Paramedics loaded Danny into an ambulance and rushed him to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids. Katie rode in the ambulance and Torey followed in his own vehicle.
When the hospital staff first examined Danny, he looked good. Almost too good for an accurate diagnosis, thanks to the quick life-saving activities that prevented complications.
Initially doctors thought he had merely fainted or had a seizure. They admitted him for observation and a cardiology consultation.
That’s when Danny and his family met cardiologist Andre Gauri, MD.
Dr. Gauri wanted to understand how the event unfolded, so he called Coach Morgan on speakerphone and asked him to explain what happened to Danny.
He learned the basketball player had collapsed. He’d been breathing heavily. He couldn’t respond.
A classic case of sudden cardiac arrest.
And an all-too familiar story.
The exact same scenario happened 10 years ago at Fennville High School in West Michigan. In that case, there had been no AED available at the school. The athlete died of sudden cardiac arrest.
After that tragedy, the student’s mother worked to raise awareness and bring AEDs and mandatory training into schools throughout Michigan.
The cardiology team at Spectrum Health joined in the effort, hosting meetings and donating AEDs to several Michigan schools.
And now it all paid off.
“If Coach Morgan hadn’t done what he did, Danny would have died,” Dr. Gauri said.
He’s happy Coach Morgan and the team knew what to do.
“It was as perfect of an execution of the cardiac arrest chain of survival as I’ve ever seen,” Dr. Gauri said.
The chain of survival refers to the chain of events that can save a life: recognizing the situation, calling 911, starting CPR, using an AED, EMS response and hospital care.
Or, as Katie said: “It was textbook.”’
Evart Public Schools is taking the lesson to heart, with plans to add several outdoor AED stations to their athletic facilities, Morgan shared.
Back to full-throttle
Dr. Gauri said Danny has a normal heart.
While genetic testing may someday uncover the cause of the problem, no amount of pre-season screening could have predicted his sudden cardiac arrest.
The good news? It’s unlikely to happen again.
Just to be safe, however, Dr. Gauri inserted an implantable cardioverter defibrillator into Danny’s chest. If his heart stops again, the device will automatically shock it back into rhythm.
As spring approaches, Danny can begin working out again.
When baseball season starts, he’ll be back on the pitcher’s mound where he belongs.
“Danny goes full throttle with everything,” Katie said. “He’s been blessed with natural ability and he uses it the best that he can.”
Danny is looking forward to getting back into baseball, his favorite sport.
But he sees things a little differently now.
“I look at life with a new perspective,” he said. “Life is just so unexpected and things happen for a reason. We just have to put our faith in God and his plan for us and enjoy the people around you. You never know what will happen tomorrow.”
Dr. Gauri wants to use this story to get the word out to all parents and athletes.
“Learning CPR is not a massive commitment,” Dr. Gauri said. “It’s a small commitment that can save a life—and Coach Morgan did exactly that.”
There’s no reason every single coach can’t be a Coach Morgan, he said.
“He’s just a normal guy who knew what to do. Now he is a hero, and the world can use more heroes!”