Elgin Community College sophomore Zach Cooper might have died on the basketball court last week had it not been for the quick response of certified athletic trainer Alicia Mikulski, armed with an automatic external defibrillator.
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Cooper, a Lake Park High School graduate, was enjoying the best season of his basketball career. A returning all-Illinois Skyway Conference and all-region performer for ECC, the 6-foot-5, 192-pound forward was averaging 13.9 points per game, tied for third on his team. His 9.9 rebounds per game ranked 11th in the nation among NJCAA Division II players.
Cooper’s dream to earn a scholarship via basketball and continue his college education was nearing fruition. One NAIA-Division II school was about to offer him a roster spot, he said, and the coach of an Indiana Division II school planned to see him in person later this month.
Cooper was feeling particularly spry in the Feb. 4 game at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines. There was bounce in his step that night, according to ECC coach Reed Nosbisch.
The game began like any other. Cooper started his 19th straight contest and played the first six and a half minutes as ECC took a 19-13 lead.
Nosbisch called a timeout and substituted for his second-year player to give him extra rest.
Cooper, who says he has never experienced any major health issues, walked past Nosbisch to get a cup of water and returned to the bench next to freshman Jason Barnhart.
But Cooper began feeling lightheaded as he sat, he said. His cup of water dropped to the floor and he leaned into Barnhart. He was losing consciousness. An artery had been cut off somehow, doctors would later tell Cooper, thus limiting oxygen to his brain. His blood pressure plummeted.
That was when assistant coach Pat Barnhart, sitting next to Jason, noticed something was wrong with the listing Cooper. The coach moved quickly as Cooper lost consciousness, catching him before his head hit the court. Barnhart immediately yelled to get Nosbisch’s attention.
“I heard him scream my name and Pat is not usually like that. He’s a calm guy,” Nosbisch said. “I turned around and I saw the expression on his face. I looked down and he was holding Zach, who was laying in his lap.”
Cooper’s eyes had rolled to the back of his head and his breathing was slowing, according to Nosbisch. ECC’s coach immediately rushed to midcourt and yelled for Mikulski, Oakton’s assistant athletic trainer, contracted through Athletico.
A Brookfield resident who graduated from the University of Illinois eight years ago, Mikulski sensed the urgency in Nosbisch’s voice and sprinted to Cooper’s side. Initially, his breathing was labored as she checked for vital signs.
Then Cooper’s heartbeat and breathing stopped. He had no pulse. He was in cardiac arrest.
Fortunately, Mikulski was as prepared as she possibly could be for the precise scenario unfolding before her. Though she had never been faced with a lifesaving situation in her six years as a certified athletic trainer with Athletico, she had just renewed her certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and the use of the automatic external defibrillator (AED) in December.
“It was fresh in my mind,” she said.
Mikulski understood time was of the essence. She asked a police officer standing nearby to retrieve her AED. He returned in just seconds. The reason it didn’t take him long was Mikulski’s attention to preparedness.
Oakton owns several AEDs, the nearest of which to the basketball facility is normally kept in the gymnasium’s storage closet. Rather than risk the closet door might be locked in an emergency situation, Mikulski always places another AED directly under the water cooler on Oakton’s bench. Just in case.
The ECC players were stunned by the surreal scene involving their teammate. Nosbisch kept his players who were on the floor at the time away from the commotion near midcourt. He soon sent everyone from the bench to join them, giving Mikulski room to work on Cooper. Both Oakton coach Mick Reuter and Nosbisch eventually decided to send their teams to their respective locker rooms.
Meanwhile, spectators in the sparse crowd watched the real-life drama from the stands. Included was the ECC women’s basketball team, which had played earlier.
At Nosbisch’s request, ECC women’s coach Jerry McLaughlin briefly left the gym along with Cooper’s girlfriend to inform Cooper’s mother via cellphone what was happening.
Nosbisch said he glanced toward the scorers table at one point and saw a female official from Oakton kneeling on the court, praying for Cooper.
The gym was silent as Mikulski lifted Cooper’s jersey, attached the pads and turned on the AED.
She administered one defibrillation, or shock. She then began CPR, doing 30 chest compressions and two rescue breaths, she said.
Cooper’s body bucked and he suddenly regained consciousness. He gulped for air, much to the relief of everyone in the building.
“Just to hear him take that gulp was very relieving,” Mikulski said. “I was extremely relieved and just very, very thankful that the defibrillation had worked, as well as the chest compressions and breaths. I’m very thankful I was there and able to help out. I used the training properly and it had a very good outcome.”
No one was more relieved than Cooper himself, who was soon fully alert. In fact, he was complaining to ECC assistant coach Scott Cork about missing the rest of the game by the time he was loaded into the ambulance.
Cooper didn’t have to worry, though; both teams agreed to halt the game as basketball took a back seat. Oakton’s players hugged the ECC players and wished them well as they left the gym and headed for the hospital to see their teammate.
Cooper said doctors have narrowed the possible causes to two, but more tests are necessary before a firm diagnosis can be reached.
The otherwise healthy 20-year-old has done a lot of deep thinking since his close call.
“When you’re young, my age, you don’t think anything can happen to you,” Cooper said. “You think you’re going to live to 100. You don’t think you could wake up and it could be your last day. You hear that it happens, but you never think it’s going to be you.
“Without that (AED) and without them acting fast, I’d be brain dead. The doctors told me I’d be six feet under the ground right now. The fact they acted fast and revived me quickly saved my life and will let me live a good quality of life regardless if I ever go back and play. I thank everyone who helped, especially (Mikulski).”
Cooper’s promising basketball future is in doubt. He had a defibrillator implanted in his chest to help remedy any future incidents. Of course, implanted defibrillators and sports don’t go well together. One doctor advised him to say goodbye to basketball and take up golf or bowling.
Another doctor offered slight hope he can continue to play, and that’s all the incentive Cooper needs. He said he’ll do his best to make a comeback once he is cleared to resume workouts in June. Associate degree in hand, he’ll see if any four-year college coaches are still interested.
Even if Zach Cooper never plays another minute of competitive basketball, he is a lucky man.
“The way I explain it to people is that it was a tragic moment that didn’t end tragically,” Nosbisch said. “It could have gone a lot worse.”
Though Cooper is now faced with coming up with thousands of dollars to continue his education without a scholarship, he’s keeping the problem in perspective.
“I have to figure out a whole new plan to pay for that, but it is what is,” Cooper said. “Being in debt is OK as long as I’m still alive. My life is the most important thing.
“Hopefully, this brings attention to things like this and people standing by the court will be ready if it happens to someone else.”