Life saved by ‘heroes,’ quick action

New London man revived by friends/opponents after suffering heart attack during pickleball match.

BY SCOTT THOMA


He remembered quickly looking for a place to sit down. The next thing he remembers is being in the back of an ambulance. What Dan DeGeest doesn’t remember in between those 15-20 minutes is probably best forgotten.

Dan DeGeest of New London was revived by friends after his heart stopped playing pickleball on Dec. 1. Photo by Scott Thoma

DeGeest, who started the New London Pickleball League in 2002, was playing in the six-team doubles league on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, inside the Prairie Woods Elementary School. The league plays at the outdoor tennis courts behind the high school in the summer, weather permitting.


Each doubles team plays two games against the other five teams each week for a total of 10 games. The teams change each week so you don’t always play with the same partner. DeGeest, 59, was partnered with Rick Dahle in the league opener that night. They were playing in their second game against Scott Rosendahl and Judd Duininck. It was the fourth game overall that night in what DeGeest calls “an ultra-competitive league.”


“Judd was across the net from me and I went for a shot that he hit,” DeGeest recalled. “Then I turned around to go back to get ready to receive the next serve. But something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t get my breath. Then the entire gym starting spinning. I looked for a chair or something to sit down on and that’s all I remember until I was laying in the back of an ambulance.”


DeGeest had suffered a heart attack. Rosendahl was the first one to see him fall because Dahl was up at the net and Duininck was walking back to the line to serve.


Rosendahl, who has 10 years of nursing experience, quickly ran around the net to where DeGeest had collapsed. Knowing time was against him, he quickly began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compressions.


“It was old school CPR,” Rosendahl said. “I wasn’t nervous at all. I’ve administered CPR to people before. I was just going on instincts.”


Derk Gratton, who also has been trained in CPR, assisted Rosendahl.


“There’s a curtain that divides the court in the gym, so I couldn’t see where Dan was playing,” said Gratton. “I heard an alarm go off and I thought it was a fire. I ran around the curtain and I could see it was Dan that was lying on the floor.”


Rosendahl had Gratton check his progress in administering CPR.


“I would ask Derk to see if he could see (Dan’s) chest rise or if he could hear air going in,” Rosendahl said. “Only 15 percent of the people that have a heart attack survive, so we are fortunate Dan is still with us.”


Rick Swenson, who along with DeGeest are the only other original members of the league. He took over running the league from DeGeest two years ago. He was injured on that night and couldn’t play, but was in attendance. When he saw what was unfolding before him, he quickly called 911.


“After I got a hold of the 911 operator, I set my phone down beside Scott and Derk so they could talk to her in case they needed to,” said Swenson.


Randy Juhl, the Prairie Woods elementary principal, who was subbing for Swenson that night, ran to get the school’s Automated External Defibrillator (AED).


“I was on the New London-Spicer school board for 16 years,” DeGeest said. “I was on the board when we approved getting the defibrillator.”


Rosendahl was relentless in continuing to administer CPR, cracking two of DeGeest’s ribs with the chest compressions.


Clint Carter, a youth minister with Assemblies of God Church in Willmar who also plays in the league, came over to offer any assistance.


Rosendahl admitted later that he was getting tired, and that he told Carter that it was his praying that kept him going.


“I thought I could hear (Clint) praying,” said Rosendahl. “But after I told Clint that, he looked at me and said ‘I wasn’t praying aloud.’ That was kind of eerie.”


Once Juhl retrieved the AED machine, Gratton affixed the patches to DeGeest.


“It only took one jolt and I could see the color coming back in him,” said Gratton. “He had a pulse again and it was such a relief. I was super nervous, but you can’t think about that. Everyone did their job, and that’s why Dan is here today.”


By the time the First Responders showed up, DeGeest was breathing on his own, and his heart was beating again.


He was then wheeled out of the gym, had two nitroglycerin pills placed under his tongue, and was placed in the ambulance and taken to the hospital in Willmar.

Dan DeGeest, center, suffered a heart attack while playing pickleball in New London last December. These four other gentlemen stayed calm in a crisis and were instrumental in saving his life. Pictured (L to R): Derk Gratton, Rick Swenson, DanDeGeest, Scott Rosendahl and Randy Juhl. Photo by Scott Thoma

“Another ironic thing is the first person I see in the ambulance is former school board member Holly Cogelow-Ruter, who made the motion to put AED’s in the schools,” DeGeest said. “A man in the ambulance said ‘Hey Dan, welcome back,’ and then told me that I had a heart attack. I remember seeing that I had an IV in each arm, and also had an oxygen mask on.”


Swenson phoned DeGeest’s wife, Donna, and informed her about what had just happened. She hopped in her vehicle and started driving the seven miles from their home on Elkhorn Lake just south of Spicer to the school in New London. By that time, however, DeGeest was already en route to Carris Health/Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar, which is 15 miles away. So, Donna turned her vehicle around and headed to Willmar. Their five children and other family members were also informed shortly after.


Physicians wanted DeGeest to board a helicopter for a hospital with a cardiac unit. But because this was still during COVID time, there were no rooms available at any of them. So, DeGeest spent two days at the hospital in Willmar, one day in an emergency bed and the second in a second-floor room before an opening became available at the St. Cloud Heart Center, where he was transported by ambulance on Friday.


“They said I was 95 percent blocked in two arteries and 90 percent in another,” DeGeest said. “I had two stents put in. I was back home by Sunday.”


DeGeest feels fortunate this didn’t happen while he was somewhere else.


“It could have happened while I was driving in traffic,” he said. “Or, even if I was out snowblowing. Donna would have found me in a snowbank.”


DeGeest hasn’t played pickleball since the incident, but not because he is unable to.


“I am the general manager of the Melrose Metal Works, where my son Jake is the manager, and I have just been very busy lately,” he said. “I will definitely go back and play again, though.”


He is also grateful to everyone who jumped in to rescue him and knew exactly what should be done.


“I saw Scott at the Hoops by the Lake 3-on-3 basketball league that I am the bracket master for this past July, and it was a very emotional moment,” said DeGeest. “I told his three children that I knew their dad was their hero, but that he is also my hero.


“This isn’t about me, it’s about these guys that were there for me. I like that I was the vehicle that allowed these people to perform their heroics. My family and I are forever grateful for these heroes.”


DeGeest said he had no indicators that he was having issues prior to his heart attack.


“I’ve never smoked, didn’t have any shortness of breath, we live on a large property at the lake so there is a lot of work to do, I ride bike and stay active, and I have no family history of heart problems.”


DeGeest has been staying active to keep his cardio up, and has been eating healthier since his near-death experience.


“Hummus and alfalfa sprouts were never in my vocabulary, and now they are in my lunch box,” DeGeest said with a laugh.

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