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Brush with death gives Hughson native new perspective on life

Lonergan advocate for AEDs at schools

Brush with death gives Hughson native new perspective on life

Hughson native Ryan Lonergan mentors kids at a Livermore session of Camp Taylor in 2011. Lonergan first attended the camp for kids with heart problems as a camper after he had a heart attack during...

POSTED October 3, 2013 9:11 p.m.

Ryan Lonergan has learned a lot since his death.

The Hughson native recently graduated from Saint Mary's College, where he studied the mechanics of why his heart stopped during an eighth grade basketball practice. While officially "dying" for a few minutes was a terrifying experience as a kid, Lonergan has used his brush with death as a learning experience and a way to connect with others suffering from heart problems.

"It changes your perspective on life," Lonergan said. "You don't take things for granted."

Back in 2004, Lonergan thought he was like any other boy on his basketball team. Tall and lanky, he already had dreams of playing in the NBA one day. On Dec. 23, 2004, those dreams came to an abrupt end when  Lonergan collapsed during basketball practice. Unlike most athletes who go down due to dehydration or heat exhaustion, Lonergan was having a heart attack.

"I was on my way to pick him up from practice when they called," Lonergan's mom Cathy Hobby said of the 2004 incident. "I walked in and they were working on him — Bob (Etcheverry) and Tom (Crowder) were shocking him."

Hobby was later told by doctors that her son would most likely be dead now if it wasn't for the quick response of two parents and the ambulance. Off-duty Modesto fireman and paramedic, Bob Etcheverry and his wife, Sandy Etcheverry, who was an emergency medical technician, saw Lonergan collapse and immediately started cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They were able to give responding EMS personnel, Tom Crowder of Hughson Ambulance, accurate information about his condition. Crowder used the defibrillator all paramedic ambulances carry to "shock"  Lonergan's heart. He was able to be revived while en route to the hospital.

"It's very difficult to find out at 13; to wake up in the hospital and be told you have a heart problem," Lonergan said.

Lonergan was eventually diagnosed with a congenital anomalous coronary artery.  Two weeks after he collapsed at basketball practice, Lonergan had open heart surgery at UC Davis. Doctors had hoped the surgery would fully repair the underdeveloped artery, but because he was technically dead for a few minutes, there were long-term effects.

"Because I died, I had scar tissue that built up. I found out that when I did strenuous exercise, extra beats would show up," Lonergan said.

The scar tissue from his heart attack put an end to his basketball career, but opened the door for a new sport — golf.

"I played golf three years of high school and helped coach basketball. I also got to play the last 2 minutes of a game on senior night," Lonergan said.

While he got used to a new sport and new limitations, he also had to deal with being "that one kid who died" at a very small school. One thing that helped was getting involved with Camp Taylor.

Lonergan's mom had heard of the camp that provides a fun and safe experience for kids who suffer from heart problems, and made a bargain to get her son involved.

"When I first heard of it, I was stubborn. I didn't want to go," Lonergan said of Camp Taylor.

Lonergan's mom turned to bribery — she agreed to help fund his high school graduation trip to Europe, if he went to a week of camp.

"I had an amazing time; it was fantastic," he said of Camp Taylor.

He went back to camp one more year as a camper, and then as a mentor and counselor.

"It makes a humungous difference," Lonergan said. "It's really beneficial to be around other people who have experienced what you have...You're not the only one who hates going to the hospital or worries you're going to die."

Along with being an advocate for Camp Taylor, Lonergan and his family are also supporters of having automatic external defibrillators at schools and other public places.

"I think it's extremely important. It's not just for the athletes playing on the court, it's for everybody who's there," Lonergan said.

Nearly 383,000 out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrests occur annually, according to the American Heart Association. Many victims appear healthy with no known heart disease or other risk factors.

Studies indicate that communities with comprehensive AED and CPR training programs have achieved survival rates of 40 percent or higher for victims of sudden cardiac arrest, according to the AHA.

In California, health clubs are required to have AEDs on site. Schools, however, are "encouraged" to adopt AED programs.

In June, Representative Lois Capps (D-Calif.) introduced the Teaching Children to Save Lives Act. If passed, this legislation would authorize the Secretary of Education to award grants to local educational agencies and schools to implement nationally recognized cardiopulmonary resuscitation and automated external defibrillator training courses. The legislation also requires the Secretary of Education to report back to Congress within the first year on grant amounts and recipients, the use of the program funds, and the impact of the funds.

“The American Heart Association strongly supports Rep. Capps’ efforts to provide the resources necessary to train the next generation of lifesavers,” said American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown. “By teaching schoolchildren how to deliver CPR and properly use an AED we are reaching a major portion of the American population, substantially increasing the likelihood that individuals suffering from sudden cardiac arrest will survive.”

As of Thursday, the bill is still in committee.

After her son's heart attack in 2004, Hobby decided that not only would she carry an AED, but she lobbied the Hughson Unified School Board of Trustees to have them available on all campuses.

Hughson Unified has an AED protocol, with locations of the defibrillators, and who is required to receive ongoing training in their use.

At Hughson High, there are three AEDs — one in a classroom near the stadium, one in a the gymnasium and one in the office. The AEDs were purchased awhile ago, said Principal Debra Davis, and "the only real cost is when a battery goes down."

"They would be a wonderful thing to never have to use," Davis said.

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