Meredith Freed was on the Sports City field at Epicenter in Santa Rosa when she knew something was wrong.
Freed was playing indoor football, in a mixed game of players aged 30 and over.
She remembers the score being 2-1. It was just before halftime.
“I hear this commotion from the visitor side,” she said. “It was: ‘We need help! We need help!'”
In the lodge of the visiting team, off the field, a player had fallen.
Freed, an intensive care nurse at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, found Mark Hays, 55, on the ground. He was conscious but not alert.
“His team member had kind of guided him to the ground,” Freed recalled. “His eyes were rolling in the back of his head. He looked like he was having a seizure. He looked weathered. We laid him flat and as soon as we laid him down he didn’t He has no pulse. He is not breathing.
Freed and a second medical professional, who was also playing in the game, started CPR. A third player, a nurse like Freed, took it upon herself to find the AED device – Automated External Defibrillator.
Time was clearly of the essence. Hays was in cardiac arrest.
“There was no delay,” Freed said. “It was very obvious that it was going badly. When someone breaks down, you’re there, you’re there, to help. You will help your team.
Freed, a veteran intensive care nurse who can’t count the number of times she’s performed CPR, said it was different there on a football pitch, with her teammates instead of other nurses , amid the chaos of a sporting event instead of surrounded hospital monitors.
“I didn’t have my monitors and I didn’t have my staff,” Freed said.
But, in a way, she did.
There were no less than three medical professionals on the ground at that time.
And there were two AEDs in the building, one just off the lot where Hays had collapsed.
The device was at Hays’ side within seconds, witnesses said.
“I’m so thankful everything was where it should have been,” Freed said.
When activated, the AED gives voice instructions.
They lifted Hays’ jersey so they could secure the device to his chest. Everyone scrambled free and the DEA administered a shock to Hays’ heart.
They continued the cuts.
“After about a minute and a half he started waking up, moving,” Freed said. “Then he had a strong pulse. He was starting to speak.
And then Hays, who coaches the varsity women’s soccer team at Healdsburg High and has been playing soccer since he was 5, started saying he was fine.
“He said, ‘I’m fine,’ Freed said. He tried to sit up.
But clearly he was not.
“I told him he passed out because I didn’t want to scare him,” she said.
Hays said he remembered little of that night. He remembers talking to his teammates, waiting to get back into the game.
The next thing he remembered was seeing a teammate’s face.
The teammate, who asked that her name not be used, said she understood that amid the chaos and fear, for Hays, recognizing a face would be soothing.
Hays, who was discharged from hospital on Tuesday with a defibrillator surgically placed in his chest, said he continued to work his way through memories of the night.
He knows there is footage available via Sports City, but he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
“I thought about watching the video but I don’t think I could watch it,” he said.
He knows that so many people came to his aid, but he doesn’t know the whole story. He was afraid to leave anyone out of his gratitude.
“I don’t know all the details of who did what,” he said. “I just want to make sure to thank everyone who helped me.”
Jenny Ogston, Epicenter’s chief executive, said the facility has had two AED devices on site since it opened in 2016.
“I understand when they first came out it was something that was really important to have in the facility just in case,” she said. “We’ve used them more than once, but it’s very, very rare.”
Ogston said she viewed footage of Hays’ collapse and the response from everyone on deck.
“Paramedics arrived within five minutes,” she said. “It was the best possible result.”
Freed, who normally withdraws from games late on Friday nights due to her 5 a.m. Saturday start time at the hospital, said she is grateful for the AED devices, for everyone who plays a role, for Hays’ recovery.
She arrived at the hospital early the next day to find Hays.
“He looked so good for what he had been through,” she said. “He said his chest was sore and I said, ‘I’m sorry about that. “”
Still sore, Hays said doctors cleared him to play football again when he felt well.
“I’m going to take some time, relax,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a bit.”
In the meantime, he had plans for his twin granddaughters’ birthday party this weekend.
When he thinks about what he went through and the friends and strangers who stepped in to help him, he is deeply moved.
“Thinking (that they) saved my life and making sure I could be there for some of these things,” he said. “It was quite emotional for me.”
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or [email protected] On Twitter @benefield.