A heartfelt act of heroism on a Leonia field

A heartfelt act of heroism on a Leonia field


For Wayne Koby, the events of Sept. 28, 2012 can best be described as "an act of God."
Anthony Vassallo, left, and Wayne Koby sit where Koby suffered a heart attack while refereeing a high school soccer game last year. Vassallo, the assistant boys varsity soccer coach, is also an emergency room physician and performed CPR as well as use the school's defibrillator to save Koby's life.

For Anthony Vassallo, the man Koby credits with saving his life, the day owes more to luck than anything else.

It was half-time at a Leonia High School vs. Queen of Peace High School girls varsity soccer game. Koby, one of the match's two referees, had just sat down on a bench to rest.

He was about to do what he always does during the 15-minute break: go over the game, what players to watch out for, where to stand when the referees changed sides.

And then all went black.

When he awoke three weeks later, Koby learned he had collapsed to the ground, stopped breathing and turned blue.

A heart attack had blown out his heart's main pumping chamber, the left ventricle, and left it operating at less than 12 percent capacity. As a Leonia resident later recalled, he had literally dropped dead.

Help rushed in from every direction. Coaches from both sides began administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Vasallo, an assistant coach for Leonia High School's varsity boy's soccer team, happened to be holding practice in a field behind the hectic scene. He also happened to work as an emergency room physician at Staten Island University Hospital.

Vassallo, knowing that forceful and aggressive CPR and early defibrillation meant the difference between life and death in an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, delivered two shocks of electricity to Koby's chest with a portable defibrillator, restarting his heart.

The device belonged to Leonia High School's athletic trainer, Ginie Milord, who urged the school to purchase two portable defibrillators specifically for use on the field several years ago.

As of September 2012, school districts are required by state law to have portable defibrillators in their buildings but there are no similar provisions for sporting events or other outside activities.

Steven Perrotta, Leonia High School's athletic director, said the decision to purchase the devices, despite their $1,200 price tag, was a no-brainer.

"It would be ridiculous not to have one [on the field]," he said.

His reasoning was a "godsend," said Koby, as was the presence of Vassallo.

"If [the heart attack] happened at home, if it happened in a mall, if it happened while I was driving the car, I wouldn't have survived," he said.

Only 9.5 percent of people manage to live through heart attacks without intervention, according to the American Heart Association. If a bystander administers CPR, survival rates jump to 40 percent.

The last Vassallo saw of Koby, before an emotional reunion dinner last month, he was being whisked away to Holy Name Medical Center in an ambulance.

Koby's medical troubles didn't stop there. Over the next three months he endured surgery after surgery, first a quadruple bypass to help his heart recover and then when that failed, the implantation of two pumping devices to keep his heart temporarily beating.

Doctors told him he would only stay alive with a transplant. To qualify for one, however, he needed to pass a battery of diagnostic tests first. The blood work, the scans, the biopsies all came back clean. The last, a colonoscopy, did not. The procedure revealed a large mass in Koby's colon.

"In my mind, I'm saying, 'It's over, it's over,'" he said.

During yet another operation, doctors removed the mass, discovered it was benign, and reattached his colon. Four days later, on Dec. 18, they located a new heart for Koby.

The donor was a 20-something woman. Koby plans to reach out to her family through the Sharing Network, a non-profit organ procurement organization, in the coming weeks to thank them.

First, though, he wanted to thank Vassallo.

Six months after his transplant, when he finally was able "to really wrap my head around the whole incident," Koby sent Vassallo an email inviting him to share a meal.

"With major credit to you, I will have a hopefully long life ahead of me," he wrote. That life will include the birth of Koby's first grandchild later this month.

The email, delivered into his inbox completely "out of the blue," "floored" Vassallo so much that he remembers where he was and what he was doing when he read it.

"I always wondered," he said. "It's just like the heart donor situation: you don't know if they want to hear from you but you want to hear from them and they don't know if you want to hear from them so until somebody reaches out…"

On July 30, Vassallo and Koby and their families met for the first time.

On Aug. 28, Koby will pick up his whistle and return to the soccer field to referee a Ridgewood High School vs. Pope John XXIII Regional High School freshman girls game.

"I didn't want to see it end the way it did," he said of his 15-year refereeing career. "If it doesn't work out, then at least I don't want them to carry me off the field again. I don't want to leave the field on a stretcher again. If I feel that's ever the case, then I'll just walk away gracefuly."

Koby, a resident of Fort Lee and an independent stock trader by day, took up the activity after his son took up the sport.

Vassallo, a resident and native of Leonia, coaches for both fun and sanity.

"I have been coaching soccer for 15 years throughout medical school and residency specifically as an escape from the reality that surrounds what I do at work," he wrote in an email to Koby. "What happened on the field [that day] was unforeseen and out of place for me."

Since then, Vassallo has seen his two very separate worlds crossover a bit more, albeit in a much more positive way.

Last fall, he earned a $500 award from the Bergen County Soccer Officials Association for helping save Koby's life and instead of using it to spruce up uniforms or buy additional equipment, he is saving the money for a financially-strapped school in need of a defibrillator.

He cannot stress the importance of both having and knowing how to use the device, along with CPR, enough.

"People should not be afraid to give CPR and they should not be afraid of the [defibrillator]," he said. "If you're uncomfortable, take a course and even if you don't take a course, open the box and follow the directors. A third-grader can operate it."

Categories: SIUH News

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