by | Nov 23, 2005 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

As he rests this morning in a Detroit hospital bed, Jiri Fischer must have many thoughts. The first, second and third should be he’s lucky to be alive. Forget career. Forget hockey. Life. He has it.

This was no sure thing Monday night during the Red Wings’ game against Nashville. When he slumped over on the bench, then fell into convulsions, Fischer was, according to medical experts, maybe seconds away from serious damage and maybe four minutes away from death. Few people knew it at the time – including his teammates.

“Jiri was slumped over with his head on the boards,” Brendan Shanahan recalled Tuesday. “Sometimes after a long shift, a player might just be gassed or winded. But when Jiri stayed that way, I guess Brett (Lebda) asked him if he was OK, and when he didn’t answer, he pulled him back and he just sort of fell into Brett’s lap.”

Luckily – and this, for Fischer, is a critical word – team doctors were right behind the bench. They sprang into action. They checked for his pulse, helped him breathe and, most critically, made sure they had an automated external defibrillator. It signaled for the doctors to “clear.”

And it essentially shocked Jiri Fischer back to the beat of life.

That’s a lot of drama.

And a lot of good fortune.

His teammates came through for him

“I believe what likely occurred was a very serious – possibly life-threatening – heart rhythm that occurred due to the presence of an underlying heart rhythm abnormality,” said Dr. David Haines, a cardiologist and director of the Heart Rhythm Center at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.

Haines, while not on the scene Monday night, has seen this kind of thing before: “The heart jumps into a rhythm that sometimes goes 300-400 beats a minute, so fast that it can’t generate an effective pulse, and it’s only moments until a patient faints and then the brain goes into seizure because it’s not receiving blood supply from the heart.

“It was fortunate for him that he had an astute medical staff … and that he got a life-saving electrical shock immediately.”

This would mirror the explanation of the Wings’ doctor, Anthony Colucci. He said Tuesday, in a televised news conference, that Fischer suffered “convulsions,” that they were “potentially fatal” and that the defibrillator’s shock essentially saved his life.

Fischer should count his blessings for that, as he should – and no doubt does – for his teammates. As soon as the Wings realized something was wrong, players jumped over the boards to signal the referees. A couple of them found Fischer’s fiancée. The Wings had the good sense and decency to cancel the rest of the game, and later many drove to the hospital and visited him there.

“What the (TV) camera couldn’t catch (was the) intensity and the feverishness of our doctors … and how Jiri was fighting to stay alive,” Shanahan said. “It was unbelievable. This could have been so much worse.”

Difficult decisions down the road

In many cases, it has been. Think of Hank Gathers, the powerful college basketball star for Loyola Marymount, who threw down a dunk, headed upcourt and collapsed into, yes, convulsions, like Fischer. He died.

Think of Reggie Lewis, the Celtics’ star, who collapsed shooting hoops during the summer. Like Fischer, he had an undetectable pulse. He was rushed to the hospital. He died.

Which brings us to Fischer’s hockey future, a question most fans will dismiss but which Fischer, I assure you, is thinking about as you read this. Three years ago, when he was tested after an abnormal electrocardiogram, Fischer told a newspaper he wasn’t scared about the potential heart abnormality, he was scared about not playing hockey.

That should go away now. You can’t play hockey if you’re dead, either. Fischer has been given a special chance here, and while we all hope he can return, if doctors determine it unwise, then, even though he is only 25 and he’s big and strong and the Wings really could use him – he should accept the diagnosis and count every lucky day.

Of course, it might be out of his hands. You got a glimpse of this Tuesday, when Colucci was asked about Fischer’s previous heart condition and Ken Holland, the general manager, quickly interrupted and said by federal law, no previous histories could be discussed. This is how it works in pro sports. Lawsuits rule. Allowing a player to compete when you are aware of potentially fatal complications is a hornets’ nest that no franchise wants to get into.

Yes, for now, that can wait. Actually, forever, it can wait. Jiri Fischer is taking breaths, he can look at his fiancée, he can make plans for tomorrow. There are only two words for his life at this moment, and he should say them to anyone and everything he believes in:

Thank you.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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