Saturday, September 27, 2003

Friends worried: Will Bob make it?

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A year ago, about 8:30 on Saturday morning, Sept. 28, J.O. Stright received a phone call at his home in Pittsburgh from University of Cincinnati basketball coach Bob Huggins.

There was nothing unusual about that. Stright, who coaches an AAU team in the Pittsburgh area, was once the legal guardian of former UC star Danny Fortson. He and Huggins have been close friends for years.

Huggins had been in town on a recruiting trip and Stright had been with him late into the previous night, first at a downtown bar called Froggy's and then at Stright's home, where they ate pizza, drank wine and Huggins smoked cigars.

On the phone, Huggins told Stright he thought he was having a heart attack.

"I said, 'I have one every time you come into town,' " Stright says.

But this was no joke.

Moments before he placed the call, Huggins had been standing near the Hertz car rental booth at the Pittsburgh International Airport. He began to feel nauseated. As he began to walk toward the airport, he had trouble carrying his bag.

"I couldn't breathe," Huggins says, "so I set my bag down."

At that point, he called Stright.

"He said, 'I'm not kidding. I'm sweating like I've never sweat before,' " Stright says. " 'I feel like I have an elephant on my chest.'

"Everything went blank. I heard the phone hit the floor. He came on a few seconds later. I'm screaming over the phone, 'Bob!' He picked it up and said, 'I'm on the ground. I can't get up.' I knew he had serious problems."

The next thing Huggins remembers, he was in an ambulance. He had suffered a massive heart attack.

Stright got dressed, grabbed a bottle of aspirin and a bottle of water and headed for the hospital. He laughs now at the thought that he would treat Huggins with aspirin.

Huggins was evaluated at Sewickley Valley Hospital for about a half-hour before being transferred to the Medical Center in Beaver, about 20 minutes away.

Stright remembers standing outside the operating room where Huggins was being treated with defibrillation.

"I couldn't see anything, but I was right outside the doors," Stright says. "They said, 'We're losing him.' They get the paddles out and they hit him once. They're screaming at him. They said, 'Mr. Huggins, you've got to help us! You've got to breathe! You've got to breathe!' They turned the voltage up and hit him again."

Huggins remembers hearing the nurse urging him to breathe, but says he wasn't conscious for much of what transpired in those first moments after the heart attack.

"J.O. says they shocked me four times," he says. "I don't remember. I remember the nurse came in and she wanted to know did I want lotion on my chest. I had so much morphine in me I couldn't feel anything other than my back. My back was killing me.

"I said, 'Why do I need it on my chest?' She said for the burns. I said, 'What burns?' I didn't know they shocked me. I asked J.O. when he came in, 'Did they shock me?' He looked at me like I had three heads."

Dr. Dean Kereiakes, the Cincinnati-based cardiologist who has treated Huggins for the past year, says the UC coach's heart actually stopped on several occasions.

In addition to the electrical shocks, surgery was performed to insert an intra-aortic balloon to help the heart pump, enhance blood pressure and reduce the workload on the heart.

The cause of the heart attack, Kereiakes says, was blockage in the proximal left anterior descending coronary artery.

"It's also referred to as the widow maker in slang terms by physicians and nurses," Kereiakes says. "That's the one that kills people."

Kereiakes says blockage in that artery killed St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile last year.

To keep the artery open, doctors also implanted a stent, a tiny metal mesh device.

Huggins, whose father, Charlie, suffered a heart attack at the age of 40, had experienced warning symptoms without realizing it.

"I don't think he recognized what they were and no one addressed it," Kereiakes says. "He had some symptoms he thought were indigestion. He had shortness of breath when he would go up and down stairs. That's the only warning he got."

Andy Kennedy, a UC assistant coach and the Bearcats' recruiting coordinator, says he was "dumbfounded" when he heard about the heart attack. He had been with Huggins two days earlier on a recruiting trip in northern Ohio and was scheduled to meet him the next day to check out a recruit.

"It was almost like the calm before the storm," Kennedy says. "He was in a great mood. He felt good physically. He had a lot of energy. Everything recruiting-wise had gone well for us. His outlook was very good. It's ironic that 36 hours later he was staring at a life-and-death situation."

UC athletic director Bob Goin was on the football field at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, preparing to watch the Bearcats play Temple, when he was handed a cell phone. Jayd Grossman, the UC basketball trainer, was on the line to tell him that Huggins had suffered a heart attack.

"The way he said it to me," Goin says, "is that it was a massive heart attack and they don't know if he's going to make it."

Goin received a police escort to the airport and made it to the hospital shortly after Huggins came out of the emergency room at the Medical Center in Beaver.

"When I walked in, he was conscious," Goin says. "He knew what was going on. He said, 'Mr. G., I couldn't have taken another step.' At that time, he realized he was a very fortunate man."



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