The Boy Who Lived

Conner Gwin standing on the UREC track with a UREC staff member

Conner Gwin (right) stands with Keala Mason, a UREC Staff member who helped save his life in 2009.

Red Cross Safety Certifications at UREC

February 22, 2009, was a typical day for James Madison University student Connor Gwin. He went to class then headed to University Recreation with friends to workout and run some laps around the track. "I made it around about one and a half times and then my heart stopped," said Gwin. The UREC student staff led by Keala Mason ('10), trained to handle emergency situations, saved Gwin's life.

Graduating on May 5 with a degree in religion, Gwin is reflecting on the changes in his life since he collapsed as a freshman. "Graduation is the closing of a chapter but it's not closing a chapter and never using it again, it's moving on to the next phase but holding on to what I've experienced here," he said.

Heart Conditioning

"Three years later I'm still wrestling with what to call it. An accident? An event? An incident? With my friends I just call it 'my heart thing,'" said Gwin. His official diagnosis: hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Because of a family history of serious heart conditions, Gwin was tested for the potential of the heart condition from birth to age 18. Finding no signs of the heart ailment, doctors assured Gwin he did not have the condition. Less than a year later he went for his near-fatal run at UREC.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is often fatal with the first symptom being sudden collapse following strenuous activity. Gwin is a research subject of a genetic study at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. In 2009 he had an internal defibrillator implanted in his chest.

Gwin has heard from several of his doctors that had he chosen to jog downtown that day or workout on his own his story would have ended quite differently.

"Had any one thing been different about the situation, I would be dead. So, had the team not been prepared the way they were, had they not responded so quickly, had the paramedics not responded so quickly the story would have been a lot more tragic, " said Gwin.

Training into Practice

UREC's First Responder Incident Review from that day details the minute-by-minute response of the student and staff team. From the time Gwin collapsed until the first student staff member was with him, one minute. Within the next minute Mason arrives and begins the initial assessment as prescribed by the American Red Cross CPR training. Two more minutes and a student staff member arrived with an automated external defibrillator, the portable electronic device that allows a trained responder to shock the heart back to an effective rhythm. Only 11 minutes lapsed from the time Gwin collapsed until fire and rescue personnel arrived on the scene.

UREC staff are trained by instructors using the American Red Cross certification program. In 2009 UREC's Coordinator for Aquatics and Safety, Erin Erford, was responsible for training the staff. "We train a very select group of students that receive ongoing training throughout their employment through mock scenarios, debriefings and review sessions," said Erford.

The detailed Incident Review does not, however, indicate how serendipitous Gwin's collapse was with Mason's location in the building. Having just finished her shift as operations supervisor, Mason was exiting the building through a staff exit on the third floor. She recalls this was very out of ordinary for her normal routine. When she walked by the track and saw students had stopped, she immediately threw down her backpack and ran to the scene.

Sarah Coleman ('11) was running on the track at the time Gwin collapsed. Coleman had gone through CPR training at UREC the month before. According to Erford both Mason and Coleman were taught American Red Cross CPR/AED for the Professional Rescuer that includes two-person CPR. Erford said students, staff and emergency services cooperated to save Gwin's life. "We do team building amongst areas so they know each other and trust each other. That is what makes UREC, UREC," said Erford.

Mason admits she was in the right place at the right time. However, she places a lot of emphasis on her training. "I could do it with my eyes closed," she said. Mason, graduating in May with a graduate degree in campus recreation leadership, now teaches CPR at UREC. "I teach exactly by-the-book, but you can't really teach the part when it really happens. You just do what you have to do," she said.

Gwin doesn't take the gravity of the moment lightly. "I have such gratitude for the students on the UREC team," he said. "I don't know what I would have done in that situation. You're trained to do it but there's still that moment when you have to decide 'am I going to follow through with how I was trained?' So there's an enormous amount of gratitude to them."

Re-Birth Day

Gwin has established a personal tradition of celebrating February 22nd as his Re-birth Day. "It's a chance every year, in case I've forgotten how close I came, to remind myself how my story could have ended," said Gwin, who likes to spend the day with family and close friends at JMU.

Although he returned to classes within a month of his collapse, Gwin did go through a time the following summer at home in Fairhope, Ala., when he considered not returning to JMU. Weighing the sense of community at Madison against starting over at another university was one of the major reasons Gwin decided to come back to JMU for his sophomore year.

Now approaching graduation, Gwin is thoughtful about the second chance he has been given. He notes a definite difference in his life before and after his collapse. As a freshman he dreamed of being a politician, but says his priorities were out of line and he didn't treat others well. Since 2009 he says his priorities and focus have changed for the better. "In hindsight I realize that it doesn't have to be your heart stopping for you to realize how valuable people are around you."

Gwin has been accepted to the Virginia Theological Seminary where he will study to become an Episcopal priest. "I'm excited for what is going to come next," said Gwin. "I'm excited I have JMU as a springboard to go onto the next thing."