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SRJC swimmer who suffered heart attack in pool saved by quick action of teammates, coaches

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SRJC swimmer who suffered heart attack in pool saved by quick action of teammates, coaches

DeSalvo was now talking, but it was largely gibberish.

The medics hooked DeSalvo up to their electrocardiogram — EKG — machine. The machine assessed the strength of DeSalvo’s heartbeat and shot out its result on a slip of paper that looked like a receipt.

“It comes out and he holds it up and shows it to another paramedic and they are like, immediately, ‘We are going to take him now,’” Stimple said. “He’s not back to normal by any means. His heart is not beating in any quality way.”

DESALVO, WITH MCCORMICK following behind in her own car, was supposed to be taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. When McCormick got there, no DeSalvo. She discovered he had been rerouted to Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital. And all the while, McCormick had been trying to reach DeSalvo’s parents. She later found out they were out of the country.

This all unfolded on March 5, just as the coronavirus was taking hold in Sonoma County. McCormick had to be cleared to enter the hospital. By the time she reached DeSalvo, he was alert, talking and, best yet, smiling.

“I get back there and he’s attached to all these bells and whistles, but he looks like Morgan,” she said. “He smiles at me and he’s like ‘Coach, I don’t think I’m going to be at the meet tomorrow.’”

McCormick cries as she retells it.

DESALVO ALWAYS KNEW he would have to have surgery on his heart to fix that valve. But it’s hard to ask for open heart surgery and DeSalvo, who has no intention of giving up swimming and surfing or anything he loves to do, was waiting for the best possible science to offer him the best possible outcome.

March 5 forced his hand.

After he was airlifted to UCSF, DeSalvo’s medical team had to wait for the fluid to clear from his lungs. But with the coronavirus bearing down, DeSalvo chose the Ozaki procedure, in which surgeons build a new valve with his existing healthy tissue.

“I could tell the difference in my heartbeat right away,” he said. “I could tell I had more energy. I felt more alive. I could notice a heavy difference already.”

He was visited in San Francisco by coaches. He has had Zoom meetings with teammates. He’s back at school taking online classes at SRJC, just like everyone else under the shelter-in-place rules.

On April 2, he celebrated his 22nd birthday.

He can’t lift anything more than 10 pounds for the time being and has to wear an AED vest at all times. For 60 days, it will monitor his heartbeat and shock him if his heart falls out of rhythm.

But if DeSalvo has a complaint, I didn’t hear it. He’s talking about his goal times in the breaststroke next season for the Bear Cubs.

IN THE DAYS and weeks since March 5, the coaches have gone over, again and again, how the afternoon unfolded. There is a level of trauma in going through something like that. And a lot of questions. They have had to counsel each other to a degree.

What if Morrison hadn’t seen DeSalvo at the bottom of the pool? What if Ference wasn’t strong enough to get his head above water? What if Stimple hadn’t just finished his EMT training or Denize couldn’t get him out of the water or they couldn’t, in a collective panic, figure out the AED machine? What if.

But none of those things happened. All of those years of CPR re-certification classes paid off. Their bodies, their minds knew what to do when an athlete lay stricken.

In one way, DeSalvo knows nothing of what unfolded. He doesn’t remember a thing before the ambulance ride. But in another way, he knows everything. It’s written in the scar on this chest and it sounds in the beating of his heart.

“Everything they did, they did perfectly,” he said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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