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Safety and Welfare Inspiring Stories

Sudden Cardiac Arrest: The Story of One Ordinary Joe and his Extraordinary Legacy

Four-part series running in conjunction with UK Coaching’s ‘Be Quick. Be Smart. Restart a Heart’ campaign. The series – written by Blake Richardson – also features sudden cardiac arrest survivors Fabrice Muamba and Saskia Holland and former England rugby legend Martin Johnson, who is patron of the Joe Humphries Memorial Trust

  • Joe Humphries tragically collapsed and died from sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) aged just 14 whilst out running with his friend in 2012.
  • Joe’s father Steve, along with close friends and family, set up a charity in his name to act as a driver of change for the education and awareness of Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS) that can cause a cardiac arrest. 
  • In an emotional interview, Steve explains how the coaching family has a vital role to play in helping to reduce the 27,000 preventable deaths that occur each year from SCA in the UK.  
  • These SCAs can happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone. If more people were trained in CPR and defibrillation, more people would be saved.

It is now eight years since Joe Humphries tragically passed away whilst out jogging, just a stone’s throw from his house in the village of Rothley, Leicestershire. 

In that time, not an hour has gone by when Joe’s family hasn't thought of him.

A great many lives changed forever on the evening of 4 October 2012, a date that will be forever seared into the hearts and minds of dad Steve, mum Angela and everyone who knew and loved Joe. 

Frantic knocking on the door gave an early indication of the enormity of the scene that was about to unfold.

In a series of truncated, emotionally-charged sentences, Steve describes the earth-shattering moment he was told that Joe had collapsed.

Fit and healthy boy out for a jog with his best friend in the village. ‘See you later dad’. Mum out shopping. But he doesn’t come home. Knock on the door. Life changes. ‘They’ve found a boy. They think it’s your son’. 

“And then the search begins, ‘Joe, Joe, where are you?’ Then it’s dark, about 7.30 at night. I see a group of people, only minutes from our door, crying. The guy who finally got to him. Distraught. Shaken. Someone said Joe had gone in an ambulance.

And then the chase is on to catch up with the ambulance. We get to the hospital, someone is waiting – it’ll be a miracle if he survives – and then the bomb goes off.”

Angela recalls: “Steve ran down the road, and as I stood at the front door I heard an ambulance. Steve missed it by minutes as it sped off with Joe in the back. When we got to the hospital, they were still working on Joe. We weren’t allowed to see him until it was all over.”


An urgent call to arms

It feels inappropriate and insensitive to ask Steve to relive such a traumatic scene. But he accepts that it is a necessary means to an end. As painful as his words are to speak, and as harrowing as they are to hear and to read, he assures me that if this is what it takes to touch a chord with people, and spur them into effective action, then needs must.

Joe Humphries Memorial Trust (JHMT) has worked relentlessly to ensure Joe’s untimely death will not be vain, driven by love for Joe and an unshakeable desire to build a fitting legacy in his name

Steve’s impassioned plea to coaches is to learn how to respond quickly and appropriately in the event of a SCA happening, so that they can make the difference and be a lifesaver.

“Twelve people under the age of 30 die every week in the UK from SADS. Some of these happen in front of coaches, during or shortly after playing sport. My message for coaches is that there’s a golden opportunity to save a life, should a sudden cardiac arrest happen in front of them.

We can no longer bury our heads in the sand and look the other way. We must create an ‘everyone can be a lifesaver’ mentality so that we create safer futures for all our communities. 

We can’t get Joe back, but the Trust is his legacy. I won’t rest until we’ve done everything in our power to try to prevent other families going through the hell that we’ll take with us to our graves.”

Heart-Safe clubs

Governing bodies, sports clubs, community sport and recreation facilities, the health and fitness industry: all want their members to have a good time and enjoy their sport, and all have countless priorities vying for their attention that means they are operating on a limited budget. But, at the end of the day, what could be more important than saving lives?

Employers have a responsibility to raise their game, says Steve, while the government must grasp the nettle and start providing more grants to clubs to enable them to demonstrate their commitment to creating a “heart safe” environment for all their members.

Sport England have addressed the challenge by strongly recommending that all sports and physical activity areas should have staff trained in CPR and have a defibrillator (Automated External Defibrillator, or AED) on site, or nearby.

Be aware. Prepare

Cardiac arrests can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime and at any age.

People often confuse cardiac arrests and heart attacks and use the terms interchangeably. But they are not the same. 

The best way to remember the difference is that a heart attack occurs when there is a sudden blockage in the heart’s vessels (a “plumbing problem” linked to smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol).

In most people who have heart attacks the heart keeps pumping and they don’t have a cardiac arrest. A cardiac arrest means the heart stops beating and the person doesn’t have a pulse. Death will occur within minutes. 

The cause of cardiac arrest in younger people is usually a malfunction in the heart’s electrical conduction system (an “electrical problem”). Most cases are genetic in origin, with the person unaware that they were at risk. 

The cardiac arrest may happen during sport. 

Joe was a fit, active, strapping 6ft 3in teenager who ran, swam and was an avid martial arts student. Unbeknown to anyone, he had an undiagnosed heart condition.

The terrible irony was that Joe was on a training run, in preparation to raise money to save lives for the Hope Against Cancer 5K Run in London, in memory of his grandad who he had lost only 12 weeks before. 

Minutes earlier, his friend Meg, training alongside him, had just said goodbye to Joe and headed home. 

“Joe didn’t have an illness. He didn’t have an accident. He had a genetic heart condition and there were no warning signs.

“With a SCA, it is a ticking time bomb of a matter of minutes before irreversible brain damage occurs,” says Steve. “Anyone who has a SCA is technically dead. The heart has stopped beating, so starting CPR is vital to prevent the brain being starved of oxygen for vital seconds.

Doing something is better than nothing. At least if you have done everything in your power, then there is some solace in that.”


A race against time

If more people in the UK were trained in CPR and the use of an automatic defibrillator, survival rates would increase. Many other countries, says Steve, have proven this.

All you need to save lives is some basic knowledge of how to administer CPR and use an AED.

Every minute matters, and even seconds can save lives,” says Steve, who adds that CPR can increase survival rates by up to 50% if carried out within the first vital minutes of collapse.

CPR allows time for a defibrillator to be located, which is then used to restart the heart. 

The chain of survival represents the sequence of four events that must occur quickly to optimise a person’s chance of surviving a cardiac arrest:

  • recognise SCA and Call 999
  • start CPR
  • use AED
  • post resuscitation care

When the cavalry arrives, in the form of the Ambulance Service paramedics or first responders, they pass the baton to the medical specialists at the hospital to complete “the chain of survival”.

Teamwork crucial to beat the clock

The ‘well-oiled machine’ that is a Formula 1 pit lane crew is a perfect analogy to describe the importance of each link in the chain. 

When a racing car comes into the pits with a mechanical problem, each member of the team must complete their job quickly and efficiently to get the car back on track and firing on all cylinders in the fewest number of seconds possible. In motor racing, seconds equal success. In the event of a SCA, seconds equal life.

The message has to click: Think quick. Act fast. Be the difference. Save a life.

Steve sees a future where AEDs are as commonplace as fire extinguishers, and defib drills as routine as fire drills.

Coaches run drills at every training session. Hundreds, every season. Surely skills drills training on SCA for all staff at the beginning of a season and at the mid-point of the season isn’t too much to ask.”


A fitting tribute

Steve prays he will not be preaching to the unconverted for too much longer, and that his appeals for action do not fall on deaf ears. 

Campaigns by national organisations and local charities like JHMT have greatly increased public awareness of CPR and AEDs in recent years. And Steve is grateful to UK Coaching and Sport England (and the support provided by the Resuscitation Council UK and St John Ambulance Service) for developing a Lifesaving Digital Toolkit for coaches, including a free sudden cardiac arrest eLearning course. 

As the message continues to be promoted extensively – through Government, National Governing Bodies, the sport, leisure and fitness industry, right through to grass-roots club level – and converted into positive action, the results can, must and undoubtedly will help to reduce the preventable deaths in young healthy people that occur each year from SCA in the UK.

It would be a fitting tribute to our amazing son if we could reduce the shocking statistics and prevent another family having to face the rest of their lives without their longed for and precious child – a sentence of torturous suffering which is just too awful to contemplate.

“We cannot lose any more beautiful and precious sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and grandchildren like Joe. I have to eat, live, sleep, drink, breathe living life without him, and I will think about him every minute until the day I die. It’s like having your arm chopped off and your nerves jangling. You have to find a way to cope with that.

“Joe would give you his shirt off his back. He would help anyone – such was our beautiful boy. And he’s helping people now.”

Sudden Cardiac Arrest Digital Toolkit

Learn to be quick, be smart and restart a heart with our life-saving digital learning toolkit that will enable you to act swiftly and effectively in the event of a sudden cardiac arrest.

Take a look

Related Resources

  • A Cause Close to my Heart – Martin Johnson on the Importance of Sudden Cardiac Arrest Training

  • The Team of ‘Angels’ Who Gave Fabrice Muamba a Second Shot at Life

  • Sudden Cardiac Arrest: A Coach’s Story


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