Fans save referee's life

By Lesley Jenkins
star staff

What started out as an evening of refereeing basketball games at Happy Valley Middle School almost became a fatal night for 47-year-old Gary Smith. Most people would hate to have something tragic, like a massive heart attack, happen to them anywhere, much less in a large public setting. But if Smith had suffered the heart attack anywhere else, he may have died.
   According to witnesses, during the fourth quarter of the varsity basketball game, Smith was walking backward down the court when he suddenly collapsed. Debbie McVey said, "At first I didn't know what happened. His knees didn't even buckle. He just went down. I was into the ball game and only looked over because I heard the sound of his head hitting the floor."
   McVey, a registered nurse at Sycamore Shoals, said she thought Smith might have tripped, but when he wasn't moving, she knew something was seriously wrong. She immediately hurried to his side, where she realized his skin was cold, his eyes fixed, and he was taking "a few agonal respirations."
   Another registered nurse, Carol Jones, rushed to assist. "She was helping, and I don't know the lady's full name, but her last name is Hollyfield, also helped to do chest compressions and breathing. There was probably five or six people that helped with cardiopulmonary resuscitation," McVey said. "I know I did a round of compressions and I got tired and a man relieved me."
   Jones and Hollyfield also took turns with chest compressions. When performing CPR, five chest compressions are administered and then a breath is exhaled into the patient's mouth. This is very strenuous because the person performing CPR must be able to physically press down on the breast bone.
   Although McVey was not sure how long it took the ambulance to arrive, she said, "I know it seemed like forever. I don't know, but I would guess it was approximately 15 minutes."
   Smith's doctors agree that if he hadn't received immediate attention from the people in the stands who performed CPR, he would not have survived. Those few minutes of CPR helped prolong his heart beat until the Carter County Rescue Squad arrived to help.
   But even the CPR alone might not have saved Smith because his pulse was so unstable, according to McVey. An Automatic External Defibrillator machine that the rescue squad brought to the scene saved his life.
   The AED was used to shock Smith's heart back into a normal rhythm.
   "I don't know if he would have survived if they had not used the AED. I think every school should have one. It is a pure example, had he have been way out somewhere or if the squad would have taken longer, he might not have survived," said McVey. She added that others attempted to find an AED at the school, but could not.
   "While we were doing CPR alone, I did not think it would save his life," said McVey. "I kept thinking this man is going to die on this court with all these people around and no family. I did not think he would make it. I honestly believe CPR along with the AED saved his life."
   Smith is now at the Johnson City Medical Center where he is being monitored before undergoing surgery on Wednesday morning to clear three blocked arteries. According to his sister, Carla Mills, Smith only remembers feeling as though his throat was closing up before he fell. His next memory came when he regained consciousness in the ambulance.
   "I was thankful we were able to do what we could do. I don't want any glory. I honestly believe the Lord placed me and the other ladies there. I have to give the Lord all the glory," said McVey.
   Mills said, "Miracles happen left and right. It is amazing. If it was going to happen, he was at the right place."
   She also commented that the nurses who helped her brother don't normally attend all the games. McVey's son had already played in the 7th grade game, and Jones doesn't normally attend them, but her daughter really wanted to go.
   Mills, in response to the people who helped save her brother's life, said, "I could cry my eyes out. I would like to hug their necks."
   She continued talking through tears. "It takes special people to take a chance to go down and help someone they don't know. They didn't even hesitate. I would like to meet them and hug their necks. He's (Smith) a good fellow. He is a wonderful brother. I really think it was meant for the women to be there. It turned out absolutely amazing. If he had been anywhere else he wouldn't be here right now."