“Life is precious,” says the Canyon Park Junior High health and fitness teacher. “I don’t take anything for granted. Not after what I’ve been through.”
The local man went into cardiac arrest while playing basketball before school on February 1st.
When he first began noticing that something was wrong, he attributed the symptoms, primarily breathing problems, to a lingering cold and congestion.
He stopped playing, talked it over with his longtime friend and colleague, Paul Jensen, another health and fitness teacher at the school, who was playing basketball with him at the time.
Jensen encouraged Wardlow to take a break. After resting, Wardlow felt better and returned to the game. The next thing he remembers is waking up in intensive care at Evergreen Hospital.
“I learned I’d suffered a heart attack,” he says, “and that I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the quick actions of some of the guys that were there with me, particularly Paul Jensen, Tom Day and Jeff Varden. They saved my life.”
Varden, also a health and fitness teacher at Canyon Park Junior High, describes the events of that fateful morning.
“Don complained of chest pains, but he didn’t have any other signs, like numbness or tingling, that you associate with a heart attack,” comments Varden. “He eats healthy, exercises and is in good shape, so none of us thought it was anything serious. Yes, he was sweaty, but we were all sweaty because we were playing basketball.” He adds, “So, he sat out of the game for a bit, but then claimed he felt much better. A few minutes later, he was jogging down the court and then we saw him stagger, slow to a walk and then fall to the ground. He hit his head and was bleeding above the eye, but he was still breathing and had a pulse at this point.”
Varden continues explaining the sequence of events, noting that he called 911, while Tom Day checked Wardlow’s vitals and Paul Jensen ran to get the school’s AED (Automatic External Defibrillator).
Within a minute, Wardlow’s breathing became heavier and louder and then his pulse stopped completely. His color, according to Varden, went from red to brown to purple.
Jensen returned with the device and Day applied the paddles to Wardlow once, followed by a series of 30 chest compressions. Wardlow’s heart rate and breathing returned just before the paramedics arrived on scene and took charge.
“The doctor told me that the treatment I got before the aid car came was as good as I would have gotten if I had been in his office,” comments Wardlow. “Thanks to those guys’ quick response, I didn’t have any permanent damage. That’s especially amazing considering I had ninety to a hundred percent blockage of the LAD artery, which is known as the ‘widow maker.’ He said that only about one out of twenty survives this type of attack and it’s even more rare not to have any damage.”
The veteran teacher knows his story is remarkable and he fully credits its happy ending to his colleagues’ actions.
“We were all running on adrenaline,” says Varden, “but we kept our heads together.” He adds, “I’m amazed mostly at Paul’s actions. He had the wherewithal to grab his keys because the AED is kept locked in a closet, which is located in an entirely different building on campus. He ran back so fast and he even had a towel with him to dry Don’s chest off so the AED pads would stick. To think and make rational decisions under such pressure is incredible. He really had it all together.”
Although each of the men was trained to use the AED, as well as to give CPR, none had ever had any cause to put their skills to a test.
“You just do what has to be done,” explains Day. “It’s a normal reaction, I think. You just hope your training has prepared you.” He adds, “I was very relieved to see Don start to breathe again, and even more relieved to see the aid car arrive.”
Day, Jensen and Varden all received awards for their exemplary action from the Bothell Fire Department in a commendation ceremony at Canyon Park Junior High on March 14th. The men were humbled by the honor and surprised to receive such recognition.
“I did what I had to do,” comments Day, “and I didn’t expect anything like this.”
Varden echoes the sentiment, adding, “I really don’t see it as something that I went above and beyond. I went into action for a friend and a colleague, and I’m just grateful that Don’s alive.”
As for Wardlow, after undergoing an angioplasty procedure to insert a stent in his coronary artery and taking a week to recover, he went back to work at the school.
“I feel good,” he remarks. “I’m on some medications, but they’re going to take me off of them down the road. I have to be careful for a few months because that’s when the risk of a stroke or a problem with the stent is greatest. After that, the risk goes down.”
And as for playing basketball, he says, “I have to let my chest heal before I can play again, but when I’m ready, I’ll be back. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to coach the kids.”