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Leistikow: The moments at an Iowa basketball practice that saved a life, brought a team closer together

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Brad Floy, the athletic trainer for the Iowa men's basketball team, has had just about everything thrown his way in the past six months.

If you’ve seen the number of players in sport coats and ties during Hawkeye games, you know the injury list is lengthy.

Two starters, Jack Nunge and Jordan Bohannon, have been dealt season-ending injuries. The coach’s son, Patrick McCaffery, has been sidelined with health issues related to past cancer. Others have been on the sidelines with various leg injuries, back injuries, the flu, mononucleosis, you name it. The team's star player, Luka Garza, has left games at least three times with blood gushing from his nose, lip or mouth. 

And that's just the stuff we know about.

Then there’s this: Floy’s wife, Erin, has been in chemotherapy treatments every three weeks since being diagnosed with breast cancer over the summer.

But none of that could compare with the harrowing circumstances Floy would face in a matter of minutes Jan. 12 inside the Carver-Hawkeye Arena practice gym.

Luke Slavens, one of seven Iowa basketball managers, is happy and lucky to be alive. Here he is shown at Iowa's Wednesday basketball game against Rutgers, 10 days after his heart stopped for 2-3 minutes during a practice.

The day practice stopped

Luke Slavens, one of seven student managers for the Hawkeyes, was born in Iowa City with a genetic condition called Brugada syndrome, which causes unusual electrical activity in the heart. He learned of the condition at age 10, and has since visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, on an annual basis, even though he had never experienced a single issue.

At his most recent visit, specialists told him his tests were going so well that he didn’t need to return for two years.

One of the many tasks managers — who are all on at least partial scholarships — undertake during their 35-hour-a-week jobs is rebounding basketballs for Hawkeye players. On this Sunday afternoon, about an hour into Coach Fran McCaffery’s practice ahead of a Tuesday night game at Northwestern, Slavens was rebounding for Joe Wieskamp, Joe Toussaint and Patrick McCaffery.

During a drill called, “rapid fire,” Slavens began to feel weak, and the players suggested he sit down and see Floy. Even though Slavens had never experienced anepisode from his condition, he thought this might be related to his heart.

Floy began asking him questions. Soon, Slavens wasn’t answering them anymore.

Floy remembers Slaven slumping into his arms. He quickly got help to carefully lower Slavens to the hardwood floor. 

“His heart hadn’t completely stopped at that point. But then it did a second later,” Floy recalls, snapping his fingers. “This isn’t a regular seizure. This isn’t a fainting. This is something more serious.”

Floy instructed coaches and players to clear the practice gym. 

“Pretty scary seeing him on the floor,” Wieskamp recalls. “Then (it was) going into the locker room, waiting and praying. And hoping for the best.”

Floy directed a student assistant to call 911, then recruited the help of some campus police officers, who had just arrived for the women’s game later that day at Carver-Hawkeye. Floy grabbed a nearby automated external defibrillator. It’s university policy to have someone present for practices and workouts who is certified to use an AED and perform CPR; that's Floy on most days.

Back to the scene. Floy used the device to send a charge into Slavens’ chest. The officers helped with the CPR; Floy followed with chest compressions. They repeated that cycle a few more times, maybe for a minute total.

A long minute.

Then, Floy remembers thinking, “Oh my God,” as he watched Slavens’ arm rise from the ground and swat the mask that had been placed on his face. He was breathing heavily, gasping to recover air he hadn’t gotten while his heart was stopped for what Floy estimates to be between two and three minutes.

Slavens had just been in cardiac arrest, a few days shy of his 20th birthday.

Slavens and his parents had moved to the Minneapolis area, but he was a lifelong Hawkeye fan. So, lying on the ground in his first moments of consciousness, Slavens thought about the aftermath of former Iowa football player Brett Greenwood's sudden collapse during a routine workout in 2011. 

Paramedics had arrived now. But Slavens was beginning to lose feeling in his right arm, and it was quickly getting worse.

“That’s when I got really scared,” he says, “because I couldn’t move my arms.”

He was placed in an ambulance and rushed across the street to the university hospital. Fran McCaffery, assistant director of basketball operations Kyle Denning and Floy went, too. They arrived to good news.

Great news, actually.

“We got to the hospital. He said he was feeling normal,” Floy says. “And he’s felt normal ever since. Crazy.”

Feeling fortunate

The tight-knit, supportive qualities inside this basketball team have poured out during a 14-5 season that has launched Iowa into the national top 20. That’s something that is cherished by Floy, 40, as he is also juggling an important role as a husband.

McCaffery assured him that Floy should put his wife first and his job second. Floy attends chemo treatments with Erin, 37. She’s doing well, by the way, with one treatment to go before radiation.

Those relationships include the managers, too. All seven are basically on call to do whatever task any coach or player needs. Something Slavens normally does on gamedays is to bring two stools to the huddle during timeouts. 

First-year managers get a 25% in-state scholarship; sophomores, 50%; juniors, 75%; seniors, 100%. 

“It can be a thankless job sometimes, but it’s something that I love to do,” Slavens says. “I can’t think of a better college job, honestly.”

Two days after the scare, Slavens had surgery to connect a defibrillator to his heart — "insurance," he says, if his heart stops again. That night, Iowa broke away in the second half to beat Northwestern, 75-62. The Hawkeyes have since taken down ranked opponents Michigan and Rutgers.

Any adversity that is thrown at this team seems to bring them closer together.

“I don’t think people on the outside realize how close to the managers we are,” says Wieskamp, who, like Slavens, is a sophomore. “We spend a lot of time with them. Without them, the team wouldn’t run nearly as smoothly as it does.”

Slavens hopes to be back to his regular duties soon. For now, he’s been told to take it easy and not lift more than 10 pounds. By Iowa law, he must have six episode-free months before being eligible to drive a car again; players or fellow managers have been happy to give him a ride to practices.

He feels fortunate in many ways, especially as he thinks about Greenwood, who survived his heart stoppage but spent 26 days in a coma. He has gradually tried to relearn functions such as walking and talking. 

“It was only two minutes. That sounds like a long time,” Slaven says. “But it could’ve been a lot longer.

“The scariest part is thinking about if this had happened outside of basketball.”

That fortune is not lost on anyone involved in this story.

The highest odds of someone with his condition going into cardiac arrest is during sleep. In this case?

“He did it around people. With an AED a few feet away,” Floy says. “And around somebody who knows how to use it.”

Athletic trainer Brad Floy, left, saved the life of team manager Luke Slavens on Jan. 12. They are shown here before Wednesday's game against Rutgers.

Amazing.

And, maybe more remarkably, this wasn’t Floy’s first time using an AED.

As Floy tells Slavens' story, he flashes back to several years ago during the basketball offseason, when former Iowa player Jarrod Uthoff was shooting on the Carver-Hawkeye Arena floor. A garden show was taking place on the concourse above. Uthoff heard folks screaming for help, and quickly raced to get Floy. The athletic trainer from Clear Lake hustled his defibrillator up the concrete stairs and revived the man’s pulse before paramedics arrived.

Floy’s quick reaction and know-how saved a life then.

He’s now saved a second.

“I’m 2-for-2,” Floy says with a smile. “I’m OK retiring with that stat.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.