Commentary

Gomes taking steps to save players from cardiac arrest

Originally Published: September 8, 2008
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's note: The "Big Picture" series will run periodically at ESPN.com, featuring in-depth stories about NBA personalities and leaguewide issues.

As a high school sophomore back in December 2000, Greg Moyer walked off the basketball court at halftime of a varsity game in East Stroudsburg, Pa., spotted his family in the bleachers and flashed that look. The same one he'd given his mother, Rachel Moyer, after she'd threatened one evening to make him eat the dirty socks he'd left under the couch. When she opened the refrigerator the next morning, several smelly pairs spilled out. "That mischievous smirk, that was Greg," Moyer says.

Little did the Moyers realize that halftime was to be the last time they'd see that smirk. Several minutes later, a team member came running toward the family. Greg had collapsed in the locker room, they were told, and he wasn't breathing.

"I went in, and he was on the floor," Moyer says. "When I held his head in my hands and said, 'Greg, why aren't you breathing?' he looked up at me with his mouth open, but nothing came out."

Thinking Greg had suffered a seizure, no one began performing CPR. "We had a doctor and several nurses there, but no one took the initiative to help because they were unfamiliar with sudden cardiac arrest," Moyer says. Though an ambulance had been called as soon as Greg collapsed, it took 35 minutes to arrive. A second ambulance drove up 10 minutes later with a defibrillator. Medics shocked Greg five times, and amazingly, more than 40 minutes after his heart had stopped, he began breathing again.

"Since he was breathing on his own, I thought he'd be fine," Moyer says. "I didn't realize that every minute of SCA without CPR and defibrillation means a 10 percent less chance to bring him back."

But his heart's revival was brief. Later, emergency room physicians tried for an hour to restart Greg's heart. None of the doctors wanted to be the one to tell the Moyers that their youngest of three children and only son had died of sudden cardiac arrest. Greg was 15 years old.

The worst part: His death might have been prevented. "The reality is that the ER nurse said there should've been a defibrillator at that gym," Moyer says. And had a defibrillator been used, it could have shocked and revived Greg's heart, which then would have allowed oxygen to resume flowing to his brain.

Amid their shock and grief that night, the Moyers began surfing the Internet for information on sudden cardiac arrest. After starting a fund in Greg's memory to raise money for the purchase of defibrillators at the area schools, they discovered an organization called Parent Heart Watch, created for parents who'd lost a child to sudden cardiac arrest.

I kept looking at Ryan, who's only a year older than Greg should've been. … And I saw my son.

--Rachel Moyer, whose son Greg collapsed on a basketball court and later died.

Upon joining Parent Heart Watch, Moyer embarked on a journey that seven years later would intersect with an emerging NBA talent. When Moyer met Minnesota Timberwolves forward Ryan Gomes last July, the first thing she noticed was his wide, amicable grin. "I kept looking at Ryan, who's only a year older than Greg should've been," Moyer says. "And I saw my son."

Even as a rookie, Gomes knew that he wanted to use his NBA fame to help others. He just had to figure out how. "I was thinking of doing something with kids, like having a facility," says Gomes, 26, who will be entering his fourth NBA season. But after a conversation with his former AAU coach, Wayne Simone, Gomes decided to focus on a more serious cause. Simone and Gomes had talked after one of Gomes' former AAU teammates, Stanley Myers, collapsed and died from sudden cardiac arrest while running around a lake in 2005. Gomes and Simone thought a nonprofit related to sudden cardiac arrest would be a great fit and created Hoops for Heart Health in 2006.

"We didn't get off the ground for quite a while until I met a wonderful person named Rachel Moyer," Gomes said during a Hoops for Heart Health benefit golf outing earlier this summer in Southington, Conn. "We were able to join forces, and she helped me be able to put the word out, as I was able to help Parent Heart Watch by bringing this awareness to others."

Before the start of the 2007-08 season, Gomes decided to donate a defibrillator to a school or gym in 12 of the cities on the Timberwolves' traveling schedule, plus in each of Minnesota's Twin Cities. Teaming with the Cardiac Science Corporation, which sold Gomes the defibrillators at a discounted rate (a typical defibrillator costs anywhere from $1,400 to $1,800), the basketball star and his Hoops team researched within each city to find the school or gymnasium that most needed one. "Some schools have them [defibrillators] or have the funds to do it, so you have to be careful that you're giving them to schools that can't afford it," Gomes says.

When Gomes donated to a Minnesota school, the Timberwolves matched his donation and gave a second to an area school where a Timberwolves assistant had served as the basketball team's head coach.

[+] EnlargeRyan Gomes
David Sherman/Getty ImagesRyan Gomes reaches out to many, hoping to save a few.

At each donation ceremony, Gomes spoke to the audience -- usually composed of children -- about sudden cardiac arrest. "If out of 15,000 people, you touch five who go home and read about SCA, at least you've touched someone," Gomes says. "That's what you do -- you put something in front of someone's face until they realize how important it is."

Moyer agreed, noting that most people don't know about sudden cardiac arrest, which usually strikes without any prior symptoms. And, once it hits someone, it's often too late for him or her to recover. "Nine hundred people a day die from SCA while nine a day die from fires [on average]," Moyer says. "If we have fire extinguishers and sprinklers in every school, why can't we buy an AED and teach teachers how to operate them? We shouldn't wait until someone dies."

The idea of operating a defibrillator is often intimidating to anyone not in the medical field. But as Al Ford, vice president of sales for the Cardiac Science Corporation points out, the newest models contain verbal activation instructions that are easy to follow. "Before they actually see the AED in use in a training class, oftentimes people are a little scared," Ford says, noting the misconceptions brought on by TV shows such as "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy." "But once they see how easy it is to use, how the device does all the analyzing and you can't shock someone who doesn't need it, it's different."

Though he considers this year's donations a success, Gomes, who became the father of a baby girl in July with his wife, Danielle, has even more ambitious goals for next season. "We want to donate in the remainder of the NBA cities and then try to get to college basketball," Gomes says. "That'll be tough since there are [341] D-I programs, though some already have them."

Florida Gators men's basketball head coach Billy Donovan, who spoke at Gomes' charity golf fundraiser and benefit dinner for Hoops for Heart Health in June, said that he and many other members of the basketball community are following Gomes in trying to help spread the word.

"At Florida, four years ago, we as coaches were all required to take CPR, and we have defibrillators in our practice facility," Donovan says. "We thought this [supporting Hoops for Heart Health] would be a great way for the University of Florida to support, participate and help out down the road. We want to help educate people about what goes on."

Gomes' organization is also encouraging AED legislation, which varies state by state around the country. Some states, such as New York, have passed laws requiring AEDs in every school. But many states have yet to require defibrillators. "In Connecticut, we're trying to make sure a law gets passed so that every school has one in its facility," Gomes says of his home state. "Most importantly, people need to be more educated."

More than 165,000 adults die from sudden cardiac arrest each year, according to the American Heart Association, and that figure doesn't include the numerous adolescent and teen deaths. Though some deaths can occur during physical activity, cardiac arrest also can strike when someone is sleeping or sitting at his desk at school.

The youth population is where Gomes has been particularly instrumental. "An NBA player has so much influence, and people listen," Moyer says. "They look at these pro athletes as authorities on different things and it's so great, the positive influence they can have."

And although Gomes tries to coordinate his efforts with his NBA schedule, the small forward who averaged 12.6 points in 29.7 minutes per game has set his sights far beyond the basketball court. "We want to give to all the elementary and middle schools, city by city, state by state," Gomes says. "I'm willing to do this as long as I can and try to help as many people as possible, even if their ultimate goal is to never have to use the defibrillator at all."

But should they have to, they just might save a life. Gomes donated a defribrilator to the rival school where Greg Moyer collapsed.

"When you meet a survivor, it gives you goose bumps," Moyer says. "I was at an educational convention recently and I met a survivor that was saved by a defibrillator that was built from the fund at my son's school."

Thanks to Gomes, both Parent Heart Watch and Hoops for Heart Health are gaining a wider audience. "What Ryan is doing is motivation for all of us," Moyer says. "I see him on the court and I know that it's not Greg, but for a few seconds, I can think that Gregory's there. Because I know he's in Ryan's heart."

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.