Oct. 6, 2009
BY DREW EDWARDS
For nearly eight years now, Emmanuel Negedu has lived the same routine.
Since coming to America from his native Nigeria, the 6-foot-7 basketball player has spent most of his days in the classroom and on the court. From Brewster Academy in New Hampshire to the University of Tennessee, the routine was a constant.
Until last week.
Negedu had just finished lifting weights with his teammates in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center. He challenged guard Bobby Maze to race on the indoor football field and won, just like he said he would.
Then Negedu's 20-year-old heart stopped beating.
"My life was going good, doing everything I had to do," Negedu said Monday, a day before undergoing successful surgery to insert an implantable cardio defibrillator at UT Medical Center. "I had just gotten done with weights, going to open gym, happy, playing around.
"And that happened."
Saving a life
What happened to Negedu on Sept. 28 is technically called sudden cardiac arrest, caused by ventricular fibrillation.
Simply put, the electric impulse that sets the pace for Negedu's heart was somehow interrupted. As a result, his heart stopped pumping blood to the rest of his body.
But when he first hit the turf, Negedu's teammates thought he was pulling a prank. What were they supposed to think? Without clutching his chest, without any dizziness, Negedu fell to the ground unconscious without warning.
Men's basketball player Scotty Hopson sprinted to the training room and grabbed senior associate athletic trainer Chad Newman, who ran the 100 yards or so to where Negedu lay on the far end of the football field. Newman, who works with the men's basketball team on a daily basis, couldn't find a pulse, and Negedu wasn't breathing properly.
So Newman sent for a manager to call 911 and grab an automated electronic defibrillator mounted on the wall of the football complex.
Director of sports medicine Jason McVeigh arrived at the same time as the AED, and Newman put the device on Negedu's chest. Then he took a deep breath.
"You're nervous. You go through your training, but it's not as cut and dry as you think," Newman said. "You're trying to make sure you're calm, and you're going through the steps of what you need to do. That's what we tried to do, just systematically just try to stay in a rhythm of what to do next."
McVeigh and Newman, neither of whom had ever been primary caregivers in a cardiac arrest situation, worked together to make sure the proper steps were taken, and, after analyzing Negedu's heart arrhythmia for about 20-30 seconds, the AED shocked his heart back into a normal rhythm.
"We both kind of helped each other, and we were both more comfortable having the other there," McVeigh said. "We were both glad that we weren't responding to that by ourselves."
Still, it wasn't easy.
Negedu had been in Newman's office joking only hours before he collapsed. And Newman, who travels with the basketball team and is present at workouts and practices, has known the sophomore since he arrived on campus.
But the training took over. As Negedu began to regain consciousness, Newman was right there reassuring him and letting him know what had happened.
"I stayed right there with him, whispering and trying to make him understand that we were there," Newman said. "We were going to take care of him the whole time."
Newman also administered CPR until Negedu's heartbeat and breathing stabilized, and he kept talking to Negedu until an ambulance arrived to take him to UT Medical Center, where he remained in stable condition until being discharged on Thursday. For Negedu, it's all still surreal.
"It was a big shock," he said. "Still now, I don't believe that happened. But it happened. I feel great now, just like I felt before."
Physically, Negedu feels just fine.
Before last week's sudden cardiac arrest, he was the picture of health. Both an echocardiogram and electrocardiogram, tests which Tennessee administers to all incoming student-athletes before clearing them to play, revealed no issues that would keep him off the court.
But emotionally, it's a different story. Since he collapsed last week, Negedu's daily routine has been shredded. And for the time being, his basketball career is on hold.
He spent three days at UT Medical Center before being discharged and traveling to the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, for more tests on Thursday and Friday. And while he's had visits from teammates and coaches, it's not the same as playing pickup games with his teammates during open gym at Pratt Pavilion.
"Right now, I'm happy that God is keeping me here for a reason, for keeping me breathing," he said. "But not to be able to play basketball right now, I feel like I'm dead but I'm still breathing."
It's easy to see how much basketball means to Negedu, who went from living with his father, a solider, in a Nigerian army barracks in Kaduna, to the United States to play basketball for Brewster Academy.
About the only normalcy for Negedu last week came just before he left for the Cleveland Clinic with Newman and the Quirks, Negedu's host family at Brewster Academy.
Negedu had a geology test that afternoon, and with enough time to pack a bag for the trip to Ohio, he decided to go to class and take the exam even though his professor had already scheduled a make-up exam for the following week.
"I was like I studied a little bit, let me just take it now," Negedu says, then he smiles. "But I don't know the grade yet. I bet I did pretty good."
But after Negedu finished his exam, he broke down.
"The day we're going to Cleveland, I'm walking to the car and I just can't understand it," he said. "Tears pouring out of my eyes. I just felt like I can't do it. Slowly. I'm going to get there, though."
He's already making progress. Negedu said he's been touched by the cards and letters fans sent. And messages on his Facebook page have been positive, too. Even some Kentucky fans have sent him well wishes and prayers.
"I just want to say thanks to all those people that care about me and show me they care," he said. "I want to say I appreciate everything."
Negedu's support system is strong, and it's been there from the moment he collapsed.
The AED that brought him back to life was one of 19 donated to the athletic department by UT Medical Center at a cost of about $2,000 per unit. And Newman was there to use the device and has barely left Negedu's side in the past week.
"Chad's a hero for that," Negedu says. "If Chad wasn't there, I don't know where I'd be right now. I'd be six feet underground."
His teammates and coaches have been there, too. And so have the Quirks, who got the news of Negedu's collapse upon their arrival in Australia for the first leg of a vacation that was to include stops in Japan and China.
They were on the next plane home, and they've been with Negedu since arriving in Knoxville.
"Having them makes me more confident and more loved, all that," Negedu says of his host family. "It makes me feel like I can do it, even though I feel like I can't. They've been big supporters to me in my life since I've been here and since I've met them. They're family to me, more than that. I'm really happy to have them."
After Tuesday's surgery, Negedu now has an implantable cardioverter defibrillator under his pectoral muscle with a wire running through a vein to his heart. The device constantly monitors his heart rhythm and can provide a shock should he ever experience another arrhythmia.
But Negedu won't be on the court this season for competition or practice, something that's a struggle to accept.
"My grandmother understands why she has a pacemaker installed," Newman said. "But a 20-year-old doesn't understand."
Some things, though, are clear as crystal.
"God is going to see me through this," Negedu says. "With God, all things are possible. God is always in control. God gives life, and He takes life.
"There's millions of people that never have the opportunity that I have right now. There's too many people who wish they had this opportunity that I'm getting right now. I just have to make the right decision and make a good choice about it. I think I'm going to be fine."