Tim Harkins thought it was a cell phone problem at first.
The Wyoming assistant athletic director in charge of media relations was on the phone with veteran college football reporter Natalie Meisler on Wednesday when Meisler’s sentences started breaking up.
“We had been talking for, I don’t know, three or four minutes and she had told me, ‘Well, wait a second, I need to grab something,’ " Harkins told Yahoo! Sports. "At first I wasn’t sure if it was a bad connection on the phone and then I kind of told her, 'Natalie, I’m having trouble hearing you.' And then I could tell that she was trying to talk, but was having trouble talking. After 30 seconds to a minute of that, I kind of had an idea of what was happening.”
Meisler, a former Denver Post reporter with whom Harkins had worked with for more than 20 years, was having a major stroke.
Meisler was recovering in a Boulder hospital on Thursday, but it could have been much worse. Were it not for the presence of mind of Harkins, the quick thinking of an assistant in the Wyoming athletic department and several other people in the Colorado State athletic department, things could have turned out very different.
Making a quick diagnosis of Meisler's condition seems almost impossible for someone who was talking to her over the phone more than 100 miles away. But Harkins had seen these signs before. His father had a stroke when he was in college and he immediately snapped into action.
“Tim was in his office with the door closed and all of a sudden he comes running out and says, ‘I need you.’ And he was pointing at my computer,” said Wyoming assistant media relations director Amy Dambro.
Harkins quickly filled in Dambro on the situation and asked her if she had Meisler’s address. She didn’t. Dambro called Colorado, but their sports information directors were out of the office. She then reached out to Colorado State senior associate athletic director Gary Ozzello. At first, Ozzello didn’t understand the urgency of finding the address and told Dambro he’d look for it. But Harkins then filled him in on the situation.
Ozzello, who has worked at Colorado State for more than 30 years and known Meisler most of that time while she covered the Rams for the Denver Post, quickly hung up the phone, found the address and was back in touch with Harkins “within less than two minutes,” Ozzello said.
Dambro called Boulder Police, passed on the address and then handed the phone to Harkins, who told the dispatcher about his hunch. Dambro stayed on the phone with Meisler, who had now stopped talking, but was still audibly breathing.
“I could hear [Boulder police] knock on the door and I told Natalie it was the police and the fire department and the ambulance and I told her not to try to get the door,” Dambro said. “I told her they were gonna come in and get her. If you said her name, she responded, because a couple times I was worried she wasn’t there. But then you could hear her breathing.”
Dambro said she heard rescue workers break down the door and start asking Meisler questions. Then the phone went dead.
A responding officer later told Harkins it didn’t look good. The three athletic department workers who collaborated to get help to Meisler’s side feared the worst.
“Every time the phone rang, I was thinking, 'Tim is going to call me and tell me that she died,’ ” Dambro said. “You just hope that wouldn’t happen. That your effort hopefully saved her life.”
By Wednesday evening, Meisler’s condition had improved. She was still in the ICU, but doctors had found a blood clot — the source of the stroke — and Meisler was able to regain some function in her extremities and move her head side to side.
Colleen Krueger, a neighbor and former sports information director at Colorado, said on Thursday that she was told Meisler’s condition is improving.
Meisler had worked at the Denver Post for several decades before taking a buyout in 2011 and starting a freelance career. When she called Harkins, she was working on a Mountain West football preview for Lindy’s Magazine. Harkins said she had sent him an email the day before and he was getting back to her just before lunch Wednesday morning.
Meisler lives alone. Krueger said she remembered Meisler briefly talking about a brother who lived in Los Angeles, but that’s all she knew of family.
Harkins wasn’t ready to acknowledge the word “fate” but did call his timing “lucky.” But Dambro said it was more than that. Harkins, who didn’t want to be labeled a hero, could have chalked up the choppy conversation to cell interference caused by the snowy weather in both states. He could have waited until after lunch to call.
“If Tim hadn’t been talking to her and we hadn’t done what we had done, how long would she have been there and how much more damage ... or would she have died at that point?” Dambro said. “We don’t know if he wouldn’t have called her and been talking to her, how long it would have been for her.”
Added Ozzello: “The way things lined up, this was truly a miracle. Had we not all been available and done what we did, we're not certain it would have had a good ending.”
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