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Safety and Welfare Inspiring Stories

Sudden Cardiac Arrest: A Coach’s Story

This is a story of how teamwork and training combined to achieve a magnificent triumph. Not a victory in the traditional sporting sense, but a triumph of the human spirit in the worst of circumstances. Christine Prokaza tells Blake Richardson how these two essential qualities were instrumental in saving the life of 15-year-old netballer Saskia Holland. It is a story of how to save a life and how it feels to save a life, that could help YOU save a life

At the climax of every netball tournament you will see handshakes and hugs between opposing players. The traditional hallmarks of respect and sportsmanship.

The cluster of individual and group hugs, involving around a hundred players, that followed the premature end of a netball tournament at Sour Valley in Leicester in September 2019, told a very different story.

The embraces were an emotional response to a traumatic incident that had befallen Cliftonettes Under-15 player Saskia Holland. At the same moment she was being airlifted to hospital in Nottingham, her teammates were being hugged by opposition players in an outpouring of support and pent-up emotion – a mix of tearful relief at the fact coaches had managed to restart Saskia’s heart, coupled with shock and distress at what they had all just witnessed.

One of those hero coaches who attended to Saskia was Christine Prokaza, who played the lead role in orchestrating the life-saving efforts of the small team of people who rushed to Saskia’s aid.

Christine relives every harrowing detail of the afternoon of 8th September 2019, so that other coaches will know how to respond in a similar emergency and significantly improve someone’s chances of survival.

‘She just dropped like a felled tree’

A former first-team county player and regional player herself, Cliftonettes Netball Club coach Christine (pictured, centre, in top image, with Saskia fourth from right) remembers the large crowd; the electric atmosphere; the laughter; the shouts of encouragement, and the whoops every time a goal was scored. 

“It was a red-hot day. We were at the Under-16 Regional League qualifying tournament in Leicester. We’d won the league as Under-15s the previous season so there was a lot of pressure on us, especially Saskia because she was the Goal Shooter,” says Christine, a Level 2 coach who has been coaching netball since 1974.

Saskia was accustomed to pressure. An elite player, she was also part of Christine’s National squad and a member of the Loughborough Lightning Academy Hub programme.

Saskia was at my end,” she recalls. “She came out of the circle to receive a pass and just crumpled to the ground. At first I thought she’d tripped because she didn’t catch the ball; she just dropped like a felled tree. She didn’t even reach out with her arms to break her fall. I knew it was serious.”

A hush fell over the crowd, as Christine ran towards Saskia screaming “stop the game, this is serious, she’s having a seizure!”

She shouted for help and within seconds, other coaches gathered round. Christine remembers Saskia making an unusual gurgling sound.

One of the coaches from Derbyshire said what I was thinking in my head, that she had had a cardiac arrest. There was blood around her head and at the side of her mouth and she was making a horrible gurgling sound. Her chest wasn’t moving. I realised it was now a matter of life and death… that every second counted.

“The gurgling sound stopped, and I realised then she wasn’t breathing. Then another voice, ‘I’ve just done a CPR course’.”

 

Christine does not need time to piece together fractured recollections. The memory is still vivid.

From the outset, she took control of the situation by assuming the role of leader and delegator and using the people around her to help.

She had coached Saskia for seven years. She had become good friends with her parents – mum Donna and dad Neil. But Christine’s close personal connection with the family was put to one side. Her CPR training and her teaching experience as a PE specialist kicked in. She was on autopilot.

“I could have given CPR, but there was someone who had recently come off a CPR course, so I was better placed doing the coordinator role.

I calmly said, ‘do it’ and they started CPR. I immediately shouted for someone to dial 999 and then another voice, ‘I’ll go and get the defibrillator’. I shouted to run and then, in my head, ‘like you’ve never run before’.”

The tournament, despite being held in Leicester, was being organised by the Lincolnshire County Netball Association, and Christine discovered later that three days before the tournament, the coach who had raced to fetch the defibrillator had carried out a recce of the venue. 

As a result of this effective risk management planning, she knew exactly where the defib machine was located, saving valuable time.

Every second counts

Effective action within the first minute of a cardiac arrest can treble someone’s chance of survival and Christine and the team of coaches, who were each fulfilling critical roles in the chain of survival, were making every second count.

Next, Christine used some scissors to cut Saskia’s dress and bib in preparation for the attachment of the defibrillator pads.

“In that moment all I could think was to stay calm, focus and to bring Saskia back to life. I stood up and shouted at the crowd that had gathered to move away and give those who were helping Saskia space. You’re in the way if you aren’t helping. I knew it could be distracting, and vital seconds could be lost.

In my head I was praying for a heartbeat and I knew from my training that CPR would keep the oxygen flowing to the brain but that it was the defibrillator that was going to save her life.

“It arrived very quickly. From then on, we just did exactly what the defibrillator told us to do. We followed the instructions and gave the first shock and it didn’t work; the machine instructed us to continue with CPR again before being instructed to give her another shock. I think it was the second or third shock before a heartbeat was detected.

Saskia choked and spluttered up some blood and then started to moan. I was just thinking ‘My God, thank you! Thank you! All the time I was praying, ‘let her be alive; let her breathe’.”

When the paramedics arrived, quickly followed by the Air Ambulance, Christine’s point of focus switched to mum Donna, who was clinging to the wire fence in a state of shock.

“She was numb and confused. I was able to reassure her that although unconscious, Saskia was alive and with the right people. 

“It was awful. I was able to support her and told her to be brave and calm and to clear her mind and pass on her medical history to the paramedics.”

With Donna unable to go on the helicopter, Christine asked the Cliftonettes club secretary to organise for her to be driven to the hospital by a parent, and to arrange for dad Neil to meet her there.

“My priority then was to the rest of my squad.”

 

‘A chilling silence’

The players had gathered in the nearby ‘Barn’ [two indoor netball courts] and there were over 200 players, coaches, officials and supporters packed inside.

Many of them knew Saskia through her involvement with Loughborough Lightning, which selects the best players from the region. With this being the Regional League qualifying tournament, some of the area’s finest young talent was on show.

There was a palpable sense of shock, says Christine, when she entered the Barn.

“There was a chilling silence. My squad ran over to me in tears and hugged me. I had to remain strong and not get upset for their sake. I told them not to worry and that Saskia was alive. 

“And it was at this point that my squad told me that whilst I was outside with Saskia each member of the teams they were playing came up to my players and hugged them individually. The other teams competing, after seeing this, lined up and took it in turns to come over and hug them too. Then all the players formed a circle and, at the call of ‘three cheers for Saskia. Hip, hip…’ there were three huge cheers of ‘hurray!’.”

Christine held her emotions in check for three days, before finally breaking down after the enormity of the experience suddenly struck her.

I fully understood what had happened and how different the outcome could have been had I and others not reacted so quickly.

“Saskia’s mum said to me that the surgeons told her ‘Saskia is alive because of the quick action taken by her coach and most vitally the shock delivered before time ran out’.”

You can make a difference, you can save a life

The moral of this distressing, but incredibly uplifting, tale of survival is surely this: Sudden cardiac arrest is something we all need to know about

Over 60,000 calls are made to 999 each year relating to sudden cardiac arrests.

To help coaches deal with a cardiac arrest calmly, competently and confidently, training in CPR and use of a defibrillator is crucial.

When you undertake sudden cardiac arrest training, you don’t think it’s ever going to happen, but you’ve got to be prepared for it,” says Christine.

“You have to take the training seriously. And the important thing I’ve learnt is that going on one course isn’t enough. You’ve got to keep refreshing your memory.”

Christine says of her close-knit squad, that has achieved consistent success at county and regional level: “Individually we may not add up to the other teams but as a squad the spirit is just fantastic, and this is what makes us extremely difficult to beat.”

The power of team spirit and teamwork was strikingly apparent on September 8, 2019. 

Pulling together as a netball team helped this family club through a distressing experience that will not be forgotten. 

As for the Holland family, they will never forget the small team of coaches who helped their daughter pull through after being on the brink of death. 

We hope ‘A Coach’s Story’ has inspired you to learn how to save a life

Our Digital Learning Toolkit and free eLearning course will equip you with the knowledge to be quick, be smart and restart a heart

Learn More Here

Christine's Top Tips

To help you be prepared in a heart emergency.

Read it Here

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