Basketball is Willie Allen’s first love. Although he played offensive tackle for Louisiana Tech’s football team, basketball was still his game. After graduation, Willie always included pickup games with his regular five or six workouts a week while working as a physical education teacher in New Orleans. Recently Willie entered the master’s program for educational leadership at Concordia University in Michigan and took a position as the tight-end assistant coach. He was excited when Athletic Director Lonnie Pries asked him to join the athletic department’s Saturday pick-up games.
The format of Saturday games is similar to a tournament: play a game, then watch a game, repeating until one team beats the rest. After playing his second game one morning, Willie ran down the right side of the court. “I felt my heart beating really fast. I kept taking deep breaths to slow it down. I remember I couldn’t talk. I took a knee and then stood up, took a knee again and then stood up. The third time I took a knee, I collapsed onto the court,” Willie recalls.
Players and staff step up
Another basketball player saw Willie collapse and begin seizing, so he immediately called 911. Lonnie saw that Willie wasn’t breathing or responsive and suspected sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). He ran to his office nearby for the automated external defibrillator (AED). “We had a student pass away earlier that week and I did not want Willie to leave us too,” Lonnie recalls.
Meanwhile, Assistant Athletic Trainer Kasey Ficken was walking into the field house when someone hurried toward her and said that a basketball player was having a heart attack in the gym.
I’m grateful that Concordia University had ZOLL lifesaving equipment on campus and that everyone around me bravely and quickly stepped in to help.Willie Allen
When she reached the gym, Concordia University basketball player Luke Diekevers was administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Lonnie was opening the ZOLL AED Plus® defibrillator. Kasey checked Willie for a pulse but couldn’t find one. Together Kasey and Lonnie applied the electrodes to Willie’s chest. The AED analyzed his heart and delivered a defibrillating shock. Kasey continued CPR for two more minutes, when the AED recommended another shock. The rescuers continued following the guidance of the AED, doing their best to deliver high-quality compressions, and Willie regained consciousness just as EMS arrived.
A renewed purpose
Left to right: Lonnie Pries, Willie Allen (SCA survivor), and Kasey Ficken
Willie recalls being very confused by what had happened. “I woke up on the stretcher and asked my friend, ‘Help me. Can you please help me?’” EMTs transported him to the University of Michigan Hospital where doctors weren’t able to pinpoint the exact cause of his SCA. They prescribed an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) and after a brief stay, Willie was released.
Willie calls Lonnie and Kasey his “survival team.” “If I had been working out alone, I would have died,” he explains. “I’m grateful that Concordia University had ZOLL lifesaving equipment on campus and that everyone around me bravely and quickly stepped in to help me.”
“I have a new outlook on life. I got another chance to make my life count,” Willie explains. And he didn’t wait long to start helping others. He recently shared his story at the annual Save MI Heart conference in Michigan, a conference whose aim is to improve cardiac arrest survival in Michigan through education and engagement. Willie continues to help raise awareness about the importance of AEDs and people trained to use them.