Stacy Sauerbrei was flipping around the TV channels on Monday night when he stopped on the Buffalo Bills vs. Cincinnati Bengals game. It was clear something had gone wrong.
The players were on the field in two circles — an inner circle and outer circle — and you could tell by the way announcer Joe Buck was talking that this was serious.
Damar Hamlin, a player for the Bills, had quickly returned to his feet after a collision, then suddenly fallen backwards on the turf. Though the announcers didn’t have any specific information at the time, it all looked frighteningly familiar to Sauerbrei and his wife Kari.
It was an emotional scene on the field and it was the same for this couple watching it unfold on television. In a manner of speaking, they’d been there.
“No one officially said it was cardiac arrest but that’s what we thought it was,” Stacy said. “Just looking at that scene was very familiar.”
Emergency care on the field
In the fall of 2019, their son Triston, then a freshman on the Worthington, Minnesota, football team, had suffered cardiac arrest on the practice field. Through the immediate and expert care of several others who were on the field that day, Stacy and Kari’s son is doing great these days.
He’s a senior now and a national honor student who served as a kicker for the Worthington High School football team. He’s also a standout baseball player who is getting attention from college recruiters in both sports.
Triston recently, with his doctor’s blessing, quit taking the medication he’d been taking since shortly after his harrowing ordeal. It frees him up to go full speed, though he was instructed — repeatedly — to go straight to the sidelines after kickoffs last fall.
“Sometimes Triston and I have conversations where I tell him not to forget what happened,” Stacy said. “He just wants to be normal. He doesn’t want any attention.”
Few will ever forget what happened to Triston on the morning of Aug. 20, 2019.
Family’s own heart-stopping moment
It was on that day he was running with his teammates at the end of a football practice he no longer remembers.
This was the kind of workout taking place all over the country that day. Thousands of high school athletes were enthusiastically looking forward to getting a season started and doing all the preliminary things teams do to prepare to play football games.
It was no different at Worthington High School’s Trojan Field until this fit and healthy 14-year-old went into cardiac arrest.
That’s why he doesn’t remember a day that no one else on the Worthington football team will ever forget.
Triston had earned the right to skip the conditioning at the end of practice that Tuesday because he’d participated in summer workouts. But as was typical of the youngest child from this sports-loving family, he joined in the running anyway, as did several of his teammates who could have headed to the locker room early.
Their participation was more a gesture of leadership and support for the others than it was serious conditioning, but by the end of it, Triston was on the ground.
Head coach Geno Lais, also a part-time emergency medical technician for Sanford Worthington Medical Center, was nearby and took immediate action.
“It was a little warmer that morning so our thought initially was that it was heat-related,” Lais said. “I responded and the other coaches responded and we went from there.”
Where Lais and the coaching staff went “from there” in this case was summoning the know-how, poise and preparedness to save a teenager’s life. When Triston stopped running and fell down it was because his heart was failing, not because he was overheated. Suddenly, his life was in the hands of two football coaches and a police officer.
Coaches, EMTs and an AED
Triston’s basketball coach Dan Bruns, who was also his youth football coach, would later tell Triston’s father Stacy that their son was the toughest player, pound-for-pound, that he’d ever dealt with. If anyone could beat this, he said, it was going to be this kid.
“This was the attitude that the people in our circle had,” Stacy said. “Triston is going to be OK.”
And they were right, in part thanks to a well-coordinated effort to save him. This began with Lais, who is also a teacher at the high school. It included police officer Chris Hillesheim, who also works as a part-time EMT for Sanford, and assistant coach and teacher Casey Hertz.
“It’s not like you see things like this happen every day,” Hillesheim said. “You pray it never happens here. But it did happen here. We’re all just glad that everything fell into place.”
Months later, Stacy and Kari Sauerbrei can still recount moment-by-moment the nightmare as it unfolded in front of their eyes that morning. Somewhere within the retelling, however, the story usually includes a part about the automated external defibrillator from Hillesheim’s squad car.
In this case, it helped record some history.
“The doctors told us that when they got the results later from the AED that everybody there on the field that day did everything exactly the way they were supposed to do them,” Kari said. “They told us Triston was a walking miracle.”
The walking miracle himself wouldn’t engage in that kind of boasting even if he thought it was true, of course.
“My family explained what happened,” Triston said. “It’s kind of crazy because I didn’t believe them at first. But I do now.”
Triston is a sports nut
Triston had been around sports as long as he could remember. His older brother Easton and sister Payton were involved with one team or another pretty much non-stop while Triston was growing up.
Stacy, an English teacher at the high school, had been head varsity baseball coach and an assistant football coach since before his youngest son was born. The consensus within the family, he said, is that Triston is even more passionate about sports than the rest of them. The ultimate gym rat. Regardless of the season, one practice or game a day usually wasn’t enough.
“He’s one of those kids where sports has been his whole life,” Stacy said. “He would go to the YMCA every day for sure and shoot baskets. Summer, winter, whenever. He’d come home from a basketball tournament and then go play basketball. When it was baseball season and he’d come home from a tournament, it was the same deal.”
At the time, Triston did not know if he’d ever be able to play any sports again.
“I’d like to play sports again,” he said then. “It might not be football, but I’d like to play.”
Hearing about Triston
Prior to that Tuesday morning in August it would have been preposterous to imagine that cardiac arrest would play a role in keeping Triston out of sports. Since then, since that terrible morning, much of what has happened translates as an answer to prayers.
Stacy was across town at the family home when he heard his son was in trouble. Kari, who works as a secretary for the public school system, was in an office near the field.
She got there first, with Stacy close behind.
“I heard sirens and they were getting closer, and then I saw one of the coaches performing CPR on Triston,” Kari said. “I didn’t know if I was going to lose my son right there in a matter of seconds. The thought was horrifying. A parent’s worst nightmare.”
Kari instinctively ran toward her son. Police officer Josh McCuen interceded. There was nothing she was going to be able to do at this point.
“I remember saying ‘This can’t be happening,’” Kari said. “I completely understand why they don’t want family to see something like that, as I replay the whole thing over and over in my mind.”
Stacy made the mad dash across town and saw much the same.
“It’s weird some of the things you remember,” he said. “Some of the older players were right next to him, encouraging him a little bit like you would a teammate.”
Other upperclassmen led the younger players away from what was now a grim scene.
A call to action
Hillesheim and Lais, teammates themselves as part of the Sanford ambulance crew for years, went to work along with Hertz.
After ruling out heatstroke as the cause, they begin helping Triston breathe. Lais was operating the bag mask while Hertz was administering chest compressions.
Hillesheim cleared everyone out of the immediate area and began using the defibrillator. It revealed that Triston’s vitals were down to nothing. This meant they were going to have to shock his heart.
“We waited two minutes after the first shock and then re-analyzed,” Hillesheim said. “Then we ended up administering a second shock. We started CPR again for the next two minutes and when we got around to the third time, we reassessed him again and it said no shock advised.”
Preparation pays off
Triston’s heart was beating on its own again. Blood was moving through his veins and he was breathing. Soon after, he was on his way to Sanford Worthington.
“Chris and I had worked a lot over the years,” Lais said. “He was amazing. It was a testament to our advanced life support system we have here and our emergency system at Sanford.”
Lais and Stacy were friends for years. Their children were friends and on a lot of the same teams since grade school. Suddenly, the head coach’s training was called into play like it never had been before.
“We have an emergency action plan we had in place,” Lais said. “Sometimes you don’t take that stuff so serious because you don’t expect to use it. But I’d just talked with a few of our athletes earlier in the week about where the AED is — we always had one on the field. We take them wherever we go. The kids were awesome. They responded perfectly.”
The emergency staff at Sanford Worthington Medical Center addressed Triston’s rapid heartbeat and breathing irregularities while also in communication with specialists and emergency personnel in Sioux Falls. He was sedated in Worthington and then taken by helicopter to Sioux Falls. From there, the Sanford medical staff made the decision to fly him to see Dr. Ian Law, a partnering pediatric cardiologist in Iowa City who specialized in treating young people like Triston.
There was the possibility the ordeal had caused brain damage, the Iowa City staff explained, and it would be several days before the Sauerbreis would know whether their son would make a full recovery.
Doctors ended the heavy sedation on Wednesday night. Up to that time, whenever their son woke up, he was immediately sedated again.
“We never knew when it was going to happen,” Kari said. “And the terrifying look in his eyes will never be forgotten. We were told that he would never remember any of it.”
Triston was Triston again
From Wednesday night until Friday’s electrophysiology study, Triston’s behavior did little to dispel the family’s concerns about the possibility of brain damage, Stacy said. He was uncomfortable, restless and confused.
It wasn’t until Triston emerged from a procedure that included placing an implantable cardiac defibrillator in his chest that the family began to see encouraging signs.
“He wasn’t completely back to his old self on Friday,” Stacy said. “But he was Triston again.”
Triston was released from the hospital on Sunday night. In the meantime, this town of more than 13,000 people rallied around the family.
More than $18,000 has been raised via a gofundme.com page set up by Tim Gaul, a friend and sergeant on the Worthington police force who was part of the rescue at Trojan Field.
It was nearly impossible to adequately express their gratitude to people involved in Triston’s emergency treatment and recovery. So much of it is overwhelming, Kari said. What if the Worthington football coach had not been an EMT? What if this had taken place without coaches nearby?
Gratitude beyond words
“They’re all heroes,” Stacy said. “People were in place to help him out. Geno and Casey — I don’t have the words to say how grateful I am to them. You had Officer Hillesheim and Sergeant Gaul and Sergeant McCuen and the police force and the ambulance crew. And then all the doctors and everyone else involved. This was right out of a feel-good movie.”
The end of that movie would include a part about how Triston’s friends have opened up about what it was like that day, filling him in on what he missed. They even joke about parts of it, according to Kari.
Lais would recount in this movie how cool it was, considering all that had happened, to be able to send Triston a happy birthday text months later when he turned 15.
It would also include a part about how a close-knit community that had been witness to several tragedies over the last year now had something incredibly positive to rally around.
“It was a real team effort,” Stacy said. “From the coaches to the police and medical staff, to all the people who kept us in their prayers; we felt truly blessed.”
The support from the community continued on. At Triston’s last home game during the 2022 football season, he was expecting he and the other seniors would serve as that game’s captains. Instead his teammates sent him out for the coin toss on his own. The opponents that night, the Luverne Cardinals, applauded and their coach, Todd Oye, came out on the field and shook his hand.
“I just wonder if they have any idea how much everyone’s support helped us get through this,” Kari said in the days after Triston began making a full recovery. “For the people who helped us, it might have felt like just some little gesture to them. But it was actually really huge to us. We’re grateful to them. We think about them all the time.”
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