By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
The small, handled box is called an automated external defibrillator, or AED. It is a portable electronic device that diagnoses patients who are experiencing cardiac arrhythmias and other issues and can administer an electric shock to reestablish proper heart function.
For one OCSA player on June 16, the device and two young scorekeepers trained in its use earned some alternate descriptions:
Life savers. Family preservers. Godsend.
Nelson Wu was playing in the weekly game for the Airballs, his team in the Orange Coast Sports Association. They had reached halftime at Bolsa Grande High School, shortly after noon, when Wu took a seat to catch his breath.
“I was on the bench and I blacked out,” Wu explained. “It was just before the second half and I was sitting down, then someone turned out the lights.”
At six feet four inches, lean and seemingly in excellent condition, Wu was experiencing the devastating effects of complete arterial blockage.
At the age of 37, he was having a major heart attack.
Over the years, the Rafu has had the sad duty of reporting the sudden and unexpected deaths of several local athletes, many of whom appeared to be in good health. Wu was perilously close to being the latest to join that list.
Doctors would later tell Wu that he had been three minutes from irreversible brain damage and five minutes from death. Those bleak scenarios never played out, however, because of two regular OCSA scorekeepers who knew what to do – and did not hesitate.
“Initially, I thought maybe he tripped, but it wasn’t a normal fall, like he had tripped or something like that,” recalled Jordan Hamamoto, the 21-year-old who was tallying the points at the Airballs game. “He went down and he was shaking on the floor, so I knew he needed some help.”
Preparation Pays Off
Hamamoto said it was around four years ago when OCSA made the decision to require all staff at games – including scorekeepers – to take a certified CPR class, which included instruction in the operation of the AED. Ed Kamiyama, a league official who was on hand to evaluate the referees in the various games on June 16, said it was the kind of preparation that is undertaken as a precaution, but is often viewed as something that will never come into use.
“You take for granted the training, but you never know if it will ever actually be needed,” Kamiyama said.
As it turned out, on this particular day, the AED Hamamoto usually kept in his car didn’t make it to the game. With players and coaches standing around Wu wondering what to do, Hamamoto acted on instinct.
“I didn’t have my AED with me, so I ran over to the other gym, because I knew Jodi had hers,” he explained.
In the adjoining gymnasium, Cal State Long Beach student Jodi Matsumoto, 22, was keeping score for one of the day’s other games. When she saw Hamamoto sprinting across the court, she knew something was dreadfully wrong.
“He knew that I had an AED, and that I knew what to do,” Matsumoto said. “He didn’t say much, just that I needed to grab the AED and come right away.”
At this point, Wu had been unconscious for nearly a minute, with brain activity and life functions spiraling toward disaster.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh gosh, I hope one of these guys is a doctor,’” Matsumoto recalled. “It happened so fast, but in that situation, there’s no time to think about it. You just have to step up and do what has to be done.”
Within seconds, Matsumoto and Hamamoto had Wu connected to the AED and Matsumoto had begun chest compressions. Paramedics had been called, but it would take several more minutes for them to arrive.
Kamiyama entered the gym to find the two scorekeepers methodically and flawlessly performing the life-saving procedures.
“You’ve really got to give credit to Jodi and Jordan,” he said. “They didn’t panic, and by the time I got there, Jodi was already giving him CPR.”
Matsumoto said she and Hamamoto followed the instructions given by the AED and the 911 operator on the phone, and when the time was right, they gave Wu a jolt.
“We shocked him once, then compression again and he was breathing. He was conscious again and he seemed fine,” she said.
When the paramedics arrived, Wu was sitting up, breathing relatively well and talking coherently. Shortly after they began to speak with him, however, he blacked out for a second time.
“He looked like he was okay; he was talking to the paramedics and seemed to be fine,” Hamamoto said. “I was talking to Jodi and I looked back and he was on the floor again, shaking and I thought, ‘Man, what’s going on?’”
After another charge from the AED, Wu regained consciousness and appeared alert before being whisked away to a hospital.
Wu’s heart was found to have 100 percent blockage in one artery and partial blockage in another. He said he had experienced some heart murmurs and shortness of breath several years ago, but was examined and had been given a clean bill of health.
A Welcomed Reunion
Twelve days later, Hamamoto was back on the job, keeping score at the Next Level Sports Complex in Garden Grove. He hadn’t spoken to Wu since the day of the emergency, but had heard he was recovering nicely.
During the halftime break in the evening’s second game, Wu strode in, looking every bit the picture of health, standing tall with an infectious smile. He was accompanied by his wife and their 18-month-old daughter.
“I don’t know what I can possibly say to thank you,” Wu said as he embraced Hamamoto.
Wu, who makes his living as a tax attorney, said he expected to be back at work in a few days, and that in perhaps two months, he may be cleared to return to the basketball court.
Matsumoto had heard from Wu, who called her shortly after returning home from the hospital, but it wasn’t until the three were reunited that the weight of their actions began to sink in for the two young heroes.
“I don’t know what to say,” Matsumoto said in a halting voice. “I didn’t know he has a daughter. Now she’ll have a father.”
“I wasn’t really thinking about all the other factors,” said Hamamoto, who attends Irvine Valley College. “At that moment, I was just thinking we had to be quick.”
A Future Preserved
Because of their clear thinking and willingness to act, the lives of Wu and his family are irreversibly altered from what might have been. He can now expect to be around as his little girl grows and matures. He’ll be there for her basketball or soccer games, sweet 16 party, college graduation and perhaps to give her away at her wedding. And he can look forward to growing old with his wife, Jean.
For Wu, the value of the actions taken by Hamamoto and Matsumoto is almost indescribable.
“Without their presence of mind, I wouldn’t be standing here talking. It’s incredible,” he said. “It takes some time to get used to that thought. These past two weeks have been life-altering. You really begin to think about your priorities and life in general. I owe everything to these two, everything.”
Since Wu’s health scare, both Hamamoto and Matsumoto have received immeasurable praise for remaining calm and collected in a time of grave crisis. Matsumoto said that assessment is not entirely accurate.
“Goodness no, we were both really freaked out,” she admitted. “I think in that situation, you don’t think about how you feel, just about what you’re supposed to do. Everyone said how calm we were, but inside we were freaking out.
“You don’t feel that it was such a big deal,” she added. “We were there and I’m just thankful that we were able to do something to help.”
Hamamoto said he has a newfound appreciation for the Boy Scouts’ motto, “Be Prepared,” and that he never forgets his AED when attending games.
“I knew it was important to have it at all times, but I guess I didn’t really know just how important.”
Matsumoto deflected the idea that the right people were present at the right time, when duty called.
“I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as he’s okay,” she said. “Luckily, in that situation, we were able to do something and help him. In the end, he’s fine and that’s all that matters.”
Wu said as far as he’s concerned, he now has two additional kids to look after.
“Whatever they want. If they ever need anything, I told them they can call me…for life.”