Iowa Men's Basketball

University of Iowa trainer saves student after heart attack at Hawkeye basketball practice

Luke Slavens, a student manager for the Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball team, talks with Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Fran Mc
Luke Slavens, a student manager for the Iowa Hawkeyes men’s basketball team, talks with Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Fran McCaffery during practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. Slavens was resuscitated by Brad Floy, a UI athletic trainer, who used an automated external defibrillator to shock Slavens’ heart, then began chest compressions. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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He remembers being in the back of his dad’s car — his old 2006 white Denali, the one the family used to take from Minnesota to Iowa City to tailgate for Hawkeye football games.

They were coming home and were in their neighborhood in Chanhassen, near Minnetonka southwest of Minneapolis. Luke Slavens said he was lying down in the back seat and remembers his dad — as they pulled into the driveway — saying, “You gotta wake up.”

And Slavens did.

But when he woke from the dream, Slavens wasn’t sitting in the family’s garage in Minnesota.

He was sitting on the floor in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, looking into the intense gaze of Brad Floy, athletic trainer for Hawkeye men’s basketball.

Also surrounding Slavens — a student athletic trainer for the team — was an emergency medical services crew, another student trainer and an automated external defibrillator, commonly used to resuscitate people experiencing heart attacks.

“Brad was just trying to talk to me, he was telling the EMS people that were all there, ‘OK, he’s awake,’” Slavens said. “Zoe, our student trainer, she was in my ear telling me, ‘Just keep breathing. You’re doing good. Just keep breathing.’”

Slavens, a 20-year-old University of Iowa sophomore majoring in pre-business, remembers feeling remarkably fine in the minutes after he awoke. Even good.

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“I honestly thought, they’re just gonna prop me up, and we’re just gonna go back to practice,” Slavens told The Gazette. “I was almost refreshed when I woke up.”

Of course, the Hawkeye men’s basketball team did not resume Sunday afternoon practice Jan. 12. And the horde of first-responders were quick to load Slavens into an ambulance and get him to the nearby UI Hospitals and Clinics.

“That’s not how it normally goes,” according to Floy, who teaches CPR and has helped in emergencies before. “Somebody that goes into cardiac arrest, you’re lucky if you get the pulse back at all, let alone that quickly. And to have regained consciousness on site like that is just — it doesn’t work that nicely for most people.”

Blacking out

Practice that day began like normal. Slavens was helping with a drill called “rapid fire,” in which two players typically shoot and pass, and a manager rebounds. He was working with Joe Wieskamp and Patrick McCaffery, and later Joe Toussaint, and he wasn’t having to work very hard because all the balls were going in.

But Slavens began to feel dizzy, his head started hurting, and he started to look at the ground — drawing the attention of the players. Wieskamp asked if he felt OK.

“No,” Slavens told him. “He was like, ‘Just go sit down.’”

Slavens tried but stumbled toward the chair, and Toussaint asked Floy to go check on him.

“The last thing I remember was Brad kneeling down to me, and I don’t even know if he asked me a question, but I just sort of blacked out,” Slavens said.

Floy was asking questions — like what he had eaten and how he was feeling. And eventually Slavens stopped answering, and started looking pale. Floy lowered him to the floor, concerned he might faint, and that’s when Slavens started exhibiting seizure-like symptoms.

His fellow student trainer Zoe Hicks also had come over. And quickly Slavens’ pulse and breathing stopped.

“He was 19 years old at the time,” Floy said.

The pair launched into their emergency protocols, with Hicks calling 911 and grabbing the defibrillator, which is kept courtside at every practice and game. Floy hooked it up, put the pads on Slavens’ chest and awaited its assessment.

Finding no pulse, it advised a shock. After delivering one, it instructed Floy to begin CPR.

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Because Carver was about an hour from hosting a women’s basketball game, public safety officers already were on scene — as were team personnel, who cleared out the men’s basketball team and rushed over to help.

“We probably did CPR for less than a minute, I’m guessing 45 seconds’ worth, when Luke regained consciousness,” Floy said. “His hand lifted up, pushed the mask off his face, and his eyes opened up, which means he’s breathing, has a pulse, is getting his consciousness back. Which is a shock.”

Floy said he turned to a public safety officer stunned.

“Luke’s kind of got a scared look in his eyes — it was basically like waking up from a dream is how he described it,” Floy said. “But I was like, ‘Luke, stay calm. Stay right where you’re at ... something just happened. You’re OK. You’re gonna be fine.”

The first thing out of Slavens’ mouth was, “I have Brugada syndrome.”

‘You’re a healthy kid’

When Slavens was 10, his dad — dealing with a range of health issues — went to the doctor, who discovered irregular heart rhythms and diagnosed him with Brugada syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes abnormal electrical activity in the heart and increases the risk of sudden cardiac death.

Because the syndrome can be shared genetically, Slavens and his two sisters were tested, and his results were the only ones that came back positive. The first doctor he saw in Minnesota suggested implanting a defibrillator, which would have kept Slavens from playing sports.

So the family sought a second opinion, and that doctor said he could wait on the defibrillator but still shouldn’t play sports — leading them to seek a third assessment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

“We met with Dr. (Michael) Ackerman, and he’s like the world-renowned expert on Brugada syndrome, and he basically said, ‘You know, you’re a healthy kid, episodes don’t really occur until you’re in your 20s, so I don’t really see why we need to put it a defibrillator in you.’”

Ackerman did want to see Slavens annually, suggesting a defibrillator would be necessary later. And at every appointment, Slavens got glowing reports.

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“Even at my last one, it was my senior year of high school, he said, ‘You know, you’re looking really good. I don’t think we need to do this for another two years.’”

‘They were freaking out’

About two years later, on Jan. 14 — two days after his heart stopped during practice — Slavens got one.

The defibrillator, implanted on the right side of his chest because he’s left-handed, comes with restrictions and will keep him from participating in team drills he helped with before.

“It’s gonna be tough because sometimes we do workouts where we’re on the pads and we’re guarding the guys, and I’m not going to do that,” he said. “That’s going to fall on the shoulders of other managers.”

But they’re up for it, which Slavens said is indicative of the entire team’s response to his near-death experience — including the barrage of visitors to his hospital room, from team doctors to Coach Fran McCaffery and his wife.

“They were kind of there to calm everyone down ... to calm my parents down especially,” he said. “They were freaking out.”

Slavens’ parents were visiting that weekend and had just left to return to Minnesota. They were about 40 miles from Iowa City when an unknown number called. It was Al Seibert, director of Hawkeye basketball operations, but Slavens said his mom was confused.

“I think he just said, ‘Luke’s doing OK, he’s on his way over to the hospital,” Slavens said. “She was like, ‘Who is this? Are you sure you have the right number?’”

They figured it out eventually and turned around immediately. Slavens was able to call them from the emergency room to provide some reassurance.

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“They were crying, they were very happy to hear my voice,” he said. “They were like, ‘We’re, coming, and we’ll be there.’ But I just I told them, ‘Don’t rush. Don’t kill yourselves, because I’m fine.’”

‘You can’t make it up’

Even though Slavens going forward will have some physical restrictions — at least when it comes to his athletic pursuits — he’s found a silver lining.

“I played golf for four years in high school, and I’m going to be able to continue that,” he said. “I’m happy about that.”

Taking a wider view, Slavens realizes how lucky he was — as many with his disorder have an attack at night and die in their sleep.

“I was in the perfect spot,” he said. “I literally collapsed into Brad’s arms, and he teaches CPR here. I mean, you can’t make it up.”

From Floy’s understanding, Slavens’ episode had nothing to do with being at practice or participating in the drill.

“It was just a spontaneous event that most people have in their sleep and don’t have an AED and somebody who’s trained to use it a few feet away,” Floy said. “So, he is super, super lucky that he was where he was.”

And although Slavens never took too seriously petty concerns, the incident has served as a reminder to stretch himself — to seize the day.

“I’m only going to be here once,” he said. “So don’t get caught up a life you don’t like.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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