Starting in December and going through the end of the 2011 year, we will feature some of the biggest stories and features from the past in our SEC "Calendar" series. This series is a way to remind our fans of everything that has happened in the conference in the past 365 days.
By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
STARKVILLE, Miss.- I had spent most of that Thursday afternoon inside the media room at Georgia’s Butts-Mehre Building working on my story to recap the first day of the 2011 Southeastern Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships. It was a brutally hot day in Athens and the opening day of the league championships featured the start of the multi-events in a light day of competition.
With the final event of the day on tap, I decided to walk out to the balcony behind the administrative building, which gave a great overhead view of the Spec Towns Track. The 400-meter dash as part of the men’s decathlon was beginning and Mississippi State’s Tevarus Christian and Antoine Lipscomb competed in the first heat.
Sending a few text messages between heats, I looked up from my phone to see the Bulldogs’ Director of Track and Field Al Schmidt collapsing to the grass at the center of the infield. He clutched head coach Steve Dudley as he fell to the ground and the track got eerily quiet.
I had never seen anything like it. Neither had many of the fellow sports information folks who gathered with me on the balcony. Instantly, Georgia’s athletic training personnel, including Director of Sports Medicine Ron Courson were on the scene, working to revive Schmidt. Dr. Don Lazas, a physician whose son Kevin competed for Arkansas, leaped out of the stands to assist.
Many of the head track and field coaches from the various schools – bitter rivals on the track – gathered together in prayer and meditation for Schmidt. There were cheers both from those around Schmidt and from the stands – “Al, Al, Al, Al.” It made you realize how superfluous the heated rivalries on the track really were, and how everyone who participates in SEC track and field, whether as a coach, an athlete or a support staff member really is family.
Schmidt received two shocks from an automated external defibrillator at Spec Towns Track and an ambulance arrived shortly after.
A defibrillator is a common device for treating life threatening cardiac arrest by delivering a dose of electrical energy to the heart to allow it to return to its normal rhythm. They can be internal or external. Schmidt now has one imbedded in his body that can, if need be, provide an automatic shock to re-start his heart.
The fact that the University of Georgia had the proper medical personnel on hand, coupled with the proper equipment saved Schmidt’s life.
“I’m lucky enough to have survived,” Schmidt said Wednesday from his office in Starkville. “They worked so fast that there was no damage at all. There were a lot of heroes that day. Dr. Don Lazas from Arkansas jumped out of the stands to become part of the reason that I’m here. Ron Courson, the head trainer at Georgia, worked fast. I think people have to realize that if there’s a situation where they have a defibrillator there, they can work fast enough to where there can be no damage. I ended up being back to work in three weeks.”
As standard as one might think it is to have defibrillators at sporting events, it’s not as common as you might think. Schmidt is working to change that.
“We only had six in our athletic department when it happened to me,” Schmidt said. “Those certainly can’t cover all 16 sports that we have. We have cross country practice in the middle of a farm. There was no possible way that if one of our athletes went down there that we could have done anything about it as quickly as they were able to help me. Now, anywhere we go, we carry one, wherever practice is.”
Things have changed in Starkville, where the athletics department purchased 11 new defibrillators the day following Schmidt’s cardiac arrest. He’s now trying to make sure that every school is as well-equipped as his own.
“I’ve tried hard to get people to listen,” Schmidt said. “I know that the day after it happened, we bought 11 new defibrillators here. They carry them to every practice for every sport. They’ve trained everybody to use them. The trainers all know how to use them and we’ve wanted to get the coaches involved too.”
Schmidt knows he is lucky. He also knows that those who have suffered similar cardiac problems have not been as fortunate. Nebraska throws coach Mark Colligan passed away in his hotel room this past June at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.
“That could have happened to me that way,” Schmidt said. “Once I get back on my feet, I’d like to put together a road race to create awareness. I want to get some big-time runners here to help create awareness about the need for defibrillators in every building. There are too many venues where they participate in athletics where they don’t have one, especially with children and parents and grandparents there. We have one in every building on campus at Mississippi State.”
In addition to creating awareness of the need for defibrillators at venues around the country, the 60-year-old Schmidt also wants to make sure that everyone knows that they can play their own small part in saving their own lives with proper diet and exercise.
“It saved me,” Schmidt said. “I had some blockages and knew I wasn’t feeling as good as I should, but I kept running. The doctors were trying not to have to do surgery. What happened to me was an electrical thing inside my heart caused by the need for another bypass surgery. I’ve run over 80,000 miles in my 47 years now. My cardiologist in Mississippi tells me that of all the cardiovascular patients he has, I’m in excellent health. I’ve run so much and I have so much cross-vessilization in my heart, that’s probably why it caused no damage. They just had to get my heart started again.”
That exercise has made Schmidt’s recovery go incredibly smoothly. Even his doctors were excited.
“I was out of surgery the following Thursday and they came out smiling from ear to ear, telling me I can go back to running as soon as I am healed,” Schmidt said. “The next day after surgery, I was walking up and down the hallways; they were ready to kick me out of the hospital, but I had to stay to get my pacemaker tested. My energy, even walking now, is not a problem. Having them saw me in half down the sternum has been the only problem I’ve had as far as pain. There is no doubt that running and exercise has saved me.”
Schmidt knows the physiology behind his methods. He says it is an exercise pattern that everyone should follow, especially if they expect it to help them in situations like the one he encountered.
“I think an hour a day ought to be the least amount that you do,” Schmidt says. “It takes at least 20 minutes into your exercise before hormones are released and your heart is getting stronger and ready to work. It’s okay if your knees hurt, your feet hurt and your back hurt, but if your heart’s not there, you’re in trouble.”
You may wonder how a man as healthy and conscious as Schmidt could have such heart problems, which led to his first triple bypass surgery in 1998. It comes down to something that is out of his hands.
“Genetics,” he said. “Genetics have been my problem. Sometimes I think it’s not fair because I’m fit and I’m thin, and then I see someone else leaving the cardiologist’s office smoking a cigarette. But it’s fair because it saved me. I was back to work in three weeks with hardly any problems at all.”
While Schmidt can’t control genetics, he does take charge of everything within his control. He encourages everyone to take advantage of medical services and not to ignore any warning signs.
“I had a banker friend of mine a couple of years ago who was having just a little bit of chest pain when he was running,” Schmidt said. “I told him the he needed to go to the doctor, but he wasn’t worried about it. A week later, he died running. You can’t ignore warning signs. If it’s a pain that you can’t simulate using muscles – if it’s in your back, neck, arm or chest – you should get it checked out. Every job has stress and every stress causes problems. You can’t ignore those signs, you’ve got to do everything you can.”
So often in athletics, toughness is one of the most valued traits that a participant can demonstrate. Schmidt says that toughness is sometimes about doing the smart thing.
“If we are at venues where we’re pushing the limits, whether it’s the fan being so into the game that their adrenaline is flowing and their blood pressure is up, or if it’s for the athletes who are pushing the limits, we need to protect as many people as we can,” Schmidt said. “Trainers are not supposed to ignore heat and not supposed to ignore letting kids recover. Our sport is all about pushing the limits and recovery. Toughness isn’t always trying to tough things out; sometimes it’s doing the smart thing.”
For Schmidt, one of the smartest things that can be done at all levels of athletics is to increase the presence of defibrillators and make sure there is an education process on how they should be used.
Because those two things existed at the University of Georgia, Schmidt is alive today.
“There should be a defibrillator hooked to every backstop and every court in America,” Schmidt said. “They should be in every track and football stadium in the country, and they should be easily accessible.”