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John’s Journal: Every Day Is A Good Day For Waseca’s Wendland

Football Coach Reflects On The Night His Life Was Saved

Posted: Wednesday, September 15, 2021 - 2:20 PM

Brad Wendland wants you to do something, no matter who you are, where you live or where you work or go to school. Wendland, the head football coach at Waseca High School, knows he is lucky to be alive and he wants others to have the second chance he’s getting.

His heart stopped beating during a game two weeks ago. Wendland collapsed on the sideline and athletic trainers from Waseca and St. Peter (the visiting team), joined by a nurse who was in the stands and others, absolutely saved his life. They maintained his airway, they did chest compressions, they used an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) to shock his heart.  

Wendland was fortunate. When he was struck by sudden cardiac arrest, he was surrounded by people who were trained in life-saving skills, at a school that had implemented plans to handle such a crisis.

“You’d better put in (this story) the importance of CPR training and having AEDs available,” Brad told me as we talked this week. “If one person hears it and does it, or one person in the crowd that night gets a checkup or asks at work, ‘Where’s our AED,’ or gets trained in CPR, it will be worth it.”

Wendland, 48, is a Blue Earth native who teaches U.S. history and psychology in Waseca. He has been the Bluejays head football coach for 16 years. He was hospitalized in Mankato from Friday night until going home on Wednesday. He’s tired, he’s getting lots of rest, reading get-well cards and writing thank you notes, grateful to be with his wife Kim and their three children. (In this photo, Wendland talks to the team after the final game of the 2020 season.)

He felt lightheaded during the final minute of Waseca’s 21-13 Week 1 victory. He was thinking of taking a knee and wait until his head cleared, but he went down in a heap. Troy Hoehn, the athletic trainer at Waseca High School, ran to Wendland and started yelling his name. There was no response. St. Peter athletic trainer Leah Rutz sprinted across the field. Krystal Malis, who works as an emergency room nurse at Mayo Clinic Health System Hospital in Waseca and has two sons who play football, ran down from the stands and leaped over the fence that surrounds the field. Waseca activities director Joe Hedervare, who was in the press box, rushed to the field while dialing 911.  

“He wasn’t responding to me,” Hoehn said. “I’m checking on him, trying to see what’s going on to get an assessment. Leah had grabbed the AED, the nurse was doing chest compressions and it seemed like it all happened at once.”

Rutz and Malis switched positions between compressions and the AED. In the midst of stunned silence at the football field, they heard the siren of the approaching ambulance.

After the AED shock, Rutz resumed chest compressions. “I could feel his heart beating again,” she said. “ ‘Oh, there’s a pulse! I can feel it!’ We knew he was beating on his own again. He started moving a little. Then he was awake. He said, ‘I want to get up, my chest hurts, can I get up?’

“That’s when it really started to kick in, what we were doing. This is not a mannequin, this is a real human.”

Malis didn’t realize the person they were treating was Wendland until he woke up.

“Somebody said, ‘Brad, you’re going to be all right.’ He was the last person I would have imagined,” she said. “He’s been instrumental with my kids. He’s talked to them about making good choices and things like that, and I know he’s done that with all the kids. He’s a blessing.”

None of the three medical professionals had ever done this before. They had trained, of course, in all manner of live-saving skills. And the training paid off.

Hoehn and Rutz both work for Mayo Clinic Health System. Hoehn, who is Rutz’s supervisor, has been an athletic trainer for 23 years.

“I’ve seen a lot but I haven’t seen this,” he said. “You carry that AED with you all the time, and crutches and other things you may need. It’s better to be prepared.”

Indeed, preparation was key to saving the coach’s life. The MSHSL encourages schools to have AEDs readily available, along with Emergency Action Plans for all teams and activities.

Five years ago, Waseca didn’t have athletic trainers at most events.

“Mayo started ramping up athletic training services in our area, and that shouldn’t be overlooked,” Hedervare said. “Five years ago this story could have been completely different.

“I communicate what comes from the League,” he said. “We have to have emergency plans in place, we have to practice them, everybody has to be aware of what’s going on, especially at a practice situation. If it would have happened anywhere else, I’m not sure our response would have been good.

“We have Emergency Action Plans for all our teams. I have heard from people (at other schools), saying they’re going to take these things a lot more seriously. This drove the point home, that we were able to implement this at a home event and it went as well as it did. It’s humbling, it’s crazy. We’re so glad we have the plan in place and everything worked out as it did.”

As Wendland woke up, he wondered where Kim was. She was waiting for him at the ambulance. As the ambulance began pulling away, Wendland heard a noise he recognized: The crowd was cheering. For him.

“That’s one of the things that’s been so overwhelming about this whole thing,” he said. “This happened in front of a thousand people, most of whom I know. To put that big of a scare into people that are that important to me, it was really hard to wrap my head around.”

The Bluejays played without their head coach at Marshall last week, coming home with a 19-7 win. The evening before, the team maintained tradition and held a pasta feed at school. Kim drove Brad to the gathering, which was emotional.

“I got to talk to them, I got to hug them,” Wendland said. “It was good therapy for me and I think it was good for them. The last time they saw me it wasn’t good.”

Before and after the game in Marshall, the players wore blue t-shirts with the word “Coach” on the front and “Waseca Strong” on the back. Wendland watched the game online, stayed in contact with Hedervare via text and talked on the phone at halftime with the coaches. Immediately after the game, he and the team reunited via FaceTime.

Wendland will have his first post-incident medical appointment on Monday. Right now there is no timetable for returning to teaching or coaching.

“I feel fine, I’m strong mentally, I feel like I have been since I came to,” he said. “I’m groggy, I’m tired, I don’t have the vigor I normally have. I’m trying to sleep as much as I can and hoping that gets a little bit better every day. I don’t like to sit around at home all day, but under the circumstances I’m OK with it.”

Wendland has learned how lucky he is to have collapsed where and when he did. According to the Mayo Clinic, sudden cardiac arrest is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S, and nine out of 10 people who suffer sudden cardiac arrest away from a hospital do not survive. Had Westland collapsed while walking to his car later in the evening, for example, the outcome could have been much different.

“I feel blessed,” he said. “I’m in bonus time. That’s the term I’ve been using. I really like my life. Every day is a good day.”

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]  

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