When Jessica Pegula heard Buffalo Bills cornerback Damar Hamlin had a cardiac arrest on the field during a Jan. 2 game, she said she wanted to throw up. It was 15 minutes before a mixed doubles tennis match in Sydney and the moment reminded her of her mother, Bills and Buffalo Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula, this past summer.
At the time, no one knew exactly what had happened to Pegula's mother. The family kept it quiet, but reports surfaced Kim was being treated for "unexpected health issues" in June and later that she was "progressing well."
But it was only until Jessica revealed in a story for The Players' Tribune on Tuesday that Kim had also gone into cardiac arrest in June.
"I got a call around midnight (on my mom’s birthday) from my sister Kelly who was staying at my parents’ house," Jessica wrote. "Something was wrong with our mom, and she was headed to the hospital in an ambulance. My mom was asleep when my dad woke up to her going into cardiac arrest and she was unresponsive for quite a while. My sister gave her CPR until the ambulance arrived. She saved her life."
The Pegulas spent the next two weeks watching over Kim in the hospital, and Jessica had already decided she'd miss most of the grass tennis season. Kim moved out of the ICU and into an in-patient care facility in about a week, according to Jessica, "but a long way from her normal self."
Jessica still played at Wimbledon that July despite the uncertainty around her mother's health weeks earlier. While she won her first two matches, Jessica eventually lost to Petra Martić in the third round. All the while, she dealt with constant questions about her mother — including rumors Kim had died.
And in November, Jessica won her first WTA 1000 title in Guadalajara, Mexico. She dedicated that victory to her mother.
"I wanted her to know that even after a terrible six months, I still fought every day because of her. If she could fight through what she was going through, I could too," Jessica wrote. "She cried during my speech and trophy ceremony."
Fast-forward again to Jan. 2 — the day Hamlin collapsed on the field during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Jessica wrote that her "stomach sunk because it felt like the exact same thing all over again" and she worried she would have a panic attack before her doubles match in Australia.
" ... the thought of what Damar and his family were about to go through hurt my heart," she wrote. "I knew how important time was. I just kept thinking time, time, time, time. I hope they got him back and quick enough."
They did, and Hamlin was able to thank the doctors who saved his life that night and in subsequent weeks that followed throughout his recovery.
Jessica tweeted soon after Hamlin collapsed about "perspective" and how sports can bring people together like family. She also texted her husband, Taylor, that night about how she finally wanted to tell the world about what happened to her mother — especially in the wake of Hamlin's hospitalization. Two weeks later, Jessica wore a No. 3 patch for Hamlin at the Australian Open and wrote "Go Bills #3" on the camera after her first-round win.
"To see the attention it garnered in Australia, across the world, in a different country, just reminded me why I love sports and the beauty of coming together," Jessica wrote. "Some of my close friends who know every detail of what has happened tell me, 'I don’t know how you have made it through the year, let alone finished No. 3 in the world.' I just say I have no freaking clue. I guess one thing I learned from the past year is it can be a great year, and a bad year, both can be true."
Now, Jessica says her mother is still recovering well but dealing with "significant expressive aphasia and significant memory issues" — meaning Kim partially lost her ability to communicate. Jessica wrote that her mother "can read, write, and understand pretty well, but she has trouble finding the words to respond."
"It is hard to deal with and it takes a lot of patience to communicate with her, but I thank God every day that we can still communicate with her at all," Jessica added. "The doctors continue to be blown away by her recovery, considering where she started, and her determination is the driving force of that."
Though Jessica admits her mother's recovery "is still unknown" she expressed gratitude toward everyone who helped her through this experience along the way.
"Thank you to the Buffalo community for your patience," Jessica wrote. "I know you have wanted answers and it took us a while to get there but it finally felt like it was time. Thank you to everyone who has respected privacy and shown me and my family tremendous support throughout this ongoing journey."