How a WNBA star saved the life of a man she'd never met

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Eric Adelson
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(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

He was sitting on a bench in the Texas sun, near a bocce ball court, and that’s all he recalls.

“I don’t remember anything of that day, or the following two days after that,” says Dan Carlson, who works as a landscape coordinator in Austin. “I talked to people who witnessed it.”

Carlson, 59, went into sudden cardiac arrest. He wasn’t in poor health; in fact he had recently lost 15 pounds. He had some minor chest pains a couple of weeks before, but he saw the doctor and got an EKG and an MRI and he was just waiting for results.

Then he collapsed. He wasn’t breathing. His heart stopped. And when a co-worker saw him lying on the ground, she was “100 percent sure he was dead.”

But Dan Carlson didn’t die, and the reason is because of a basketball player he’d never met.

Tina Charles won two national titles at UConn, went No. 1 overall in the 2010 WNBA draft, won league MVP in 2012, is a five-time All-Star and currently is the leading scorer on the New York Liberty.

But one of the biggest stars in her orbit is her late aunt, Maureen “Hopey” Vaz. Hopey suffered multiple organ failure in March of 2013, and she didn’t survive. Had there been an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) nearby, she might have lived.

Only a few weeks before she lost her aunt, Charles read about a basketball player in Michigan named Wes Leonard, who went into sudden cardiac arrest after a game in 2011. Wes also could have been saved by an AED. After Hopey died, Charles decided to donate to the Leonard foundation, and she also donated 10 AEDs to the New York Department of Education.

But there was more she wanted to do. A lot more.

“I didn’t know the importance of AEDs,” she says. “And it felt like along the way, I should have had that education: Where the AED is in a gym or school and these are the steps to take to save a life.”

Charles started the Hopey’s Heart Foundation to honor her aunt and raise awareness of the deep and constant need for AEDs. Sudden cardiac arrest is different from a heart attack and it “can happen in people who appear healthy and have no known heart disease or other risk factors,” according to the National Institutes of Health. AEDs are expensive – costing around $1,500 – but Charles was undaunted. Starting in 2013 and still today, she has donated her entire WNBA salary – yes, her entire salary – to this cause.

“I knew it was costly but I knew the importance,” she says. “I can’t ask others to donate if I’m not showing an effort myself.”

Hopey’s Heart has placed 300 AEDs around the country, and one of them happened to be at Marbridge Foundation, a community for those with intellectual disabilities in Austin.

That’s where Dan Carlson works. Around 9:45 on the morning of July 13, Jennifer Diaz was dismissing her class when she heard a noise outside. It sounded like something hitting the ground. When she went to look, she found Carlson lying on the ground, unconscious and not breathing. She thought he was having a seizure.

A co-worker administered CPR, while Diaz called 911.

“Do you have an AED nearby?” the operator asked.

“Yes,” Diaz replied.

By a stroke of good fortune, the AED was just inside the nearby classroom. The device scans the patient’s chest to determine if he needs to be defibrillated. When placed on Carlson’s chest, it determined he did. They activated the device, and Carlson began breathing.

The entire incident lasted about 10 minutes before paramedics arrived. When they did, Carlson needed to be defibrillated again, before being taken to the hospital.

It happened on a Thursday. Saturday, Diaz visited Carlson in the hospital.

“I couldn’t believe how back to normal he was,” Diaz says. “Going from what I saw on Thursday when I was 100 percent sure he was dead to Saturday morning making jokes and feeling great. It was just amazing.”

Dan Carlson (Courtesy of Marbridge Foundation)
Dan Carlson (Courtesy of Marbridge Foundation)

Charles got the call from her mother with news that an AED her foundation had donated had been used to save someone’s life. It’s the first time this has happened. They both cried so much that it was quiet on the phone for a long time. They prayed together.

“I thought of this man and I wondered, ‘Is he a father? A brother?’ It touched me deeply,” she says.

It turns out Dan Carlson is about to be a grandfather for the first time. And he will meet that baby because of Tina Charles.

“I guess I was in shock,” Carlson says about learning what happened to him. “It’s hard to explain. It was easier for me than everybody else involved. I was grateful, thankful.”

He’s thankful to Diaz, who knew where to get the AED to save him. That’s the other key part of awareness: not just having an AED at a school, a gym, or a pool, but knowing where it is and how to use it.

“It’s really important,” Charles says. “You go through a fire drill, and you go through the protocol. Same thing when you have an AED.”

Charles has since thought back to the first few days planning Hopey’s Heart. She was 23 at the time and could have put it off for a few years. Instead, she’s made it her lifelong mission. She wants AEDs in rural areas, far from hospitals. She wants AEDs in places like Central Park, where concerts are held. Sudden cardiac arrest can happen to anyone at any time, and there are many lives to save. A recent European study found that survival from cardiac arrest reaches 93 percent in places with an AED.

For now, Charles is looking forward to getting the chance to meet the man she helped save. “I’ll be flushed with emotions,” she says.

The basketball player had a dream beyond her sport, and she went after it. “Whatever is on your heart to do, do it,” she says. “It’s all about having the willingness to make a difference.”

She did.