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Death on the sports fields

“What the f*** was that, Bruce?” demands a none-too-impressed James ‘Jimmy Sparks’ Narayan.

An Energiser bunny type midfielder who has been buzzing around for 70 minutes being a right thorn in our side, Tuakau Soccer Club stalwart James Narayan has been getting increasingly agitated throughout the second half. That’s pretty much par for the course in masters football. As fatigue levels increase, tempers start to fray.

Jimmy is incensed at Bruce’s botched throw-in attempt. The stocky fullback had lost control of the ball mid throw and it had floated into no man’s land, where it was gratefully collected by one of our players, setting up a dangerous attack that almost results in us padding a 4-1 lead.

Bruce responds with a wry grin: “I didn’t do it on purpose, Jimmy.”

It’s a light-hearted moment – the last the 30-odd of us who have gathered together at Tuakau’s Dr John Lightbody Reserve to do battle in an Auckland Football Federation’s Masters Division 4 match will experience for some time.

Moments later, there is a commotion behind me. Jimmy is lying on the ground. There’s no one else near him, so it’s clear he’s simply collapsed rather than been fouled. That’s never a good sign in a sports match, at any level.

Jimmy had been talking to the referee when he suddenly sat down. Then he stopped talking and rolled onto his side. At first it had seemed like a playful sit-down protest at a refereeing decision – that Jimmy was pretending not to play. But it’s immediately apparent this is no joke.

Several of us reach Jimmy at the same time. His jaw is clenched shut and he is convulsing. He’s breathing heavily through his nose. We place him in the recovery position, hoping his fit will pass.

It’s a scary but not necessarily life-threatening situation. I’ve seen several people collapse and fit in a similar way due to what has turned out to be heat stroke or epilepsy, only to recover consciousness quickly. But Jimmy’s fit doesn’t pass. We check his pulse and it is faint. Then he stops breathing.

“Shit. Who knows CPR?” someone asks. There’s a panicked discussion about how many compressions per minute we need to do but thankfully our defender Stu Garet arrives on the scene. Stu had badly torn a hamstring a minute into the second half, but he’s limped over to the scene as fast as he can. A former lifeguard in the UK who now undergoes regular first aid training as part of his job as a site foreman, Stu is now Jimmy’s best chance of survival.

By now we’ve called 111 and help is both on the way and at hand via cellphone. The dispatcher on the phone instructs us what do: two deep chest compressions with the heel of the hand every second. The plan is to do 600 compressions initially, continuing until either Jimmy begins breathing or first responders arrive.

Stu takes the lead. It’s an exhausting process, so a group of players from both teams rotate in and out, calling out “1,2,3,4” with each compression so the dispatcher can hear that our timing is correct.

Stu holds Jimmy’s head to keep his airway clear. “Come on Jimmy,” he says over and over. “Come back to us.”

After 600 compressions, Stu breathes twice into Jimmy, inflating his lungs. Jimmy’s belly begins to rise and fall. It’s the first positive sign we’ve had. Hope surges. But, crushingly, Jimmy’s belly stops rising. We start the cycle again. “1,2,3,4 – come back to us Jimmy. Come on mate, come back to us.”

The Tuakau Volunteer Fire Brigade are the first responders on the scene. Later, I call the station to ask about the response time to our 111 call, but I’m informed I’ll likely have to request that information under the Official Information Act.

What seems like an eternity is likely somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes (Tuakau club president Damian Cameron timed it at 13). According to St John, the median response time to a cardiac arrest alert in a rural location is 11 minutes, with the Fire-Service co-responding 70 percent of time.

The firemen take over CPR.

Players from both teams stand in hushed groups. One desolate Tuakau player sits alone in the middle of the pitch, his head in his hands. The firemen continue to work on Jimmy until an ambulance arrives. But by now it’s pretty clear what has happened – and what the likely outcome will be.

Jimmy’s dire predicament hits our team, the Beachlands Maraetai AFC Rebels, particularly hard.

Just two weeks earlier, on April 29, our friend and team-mate Jeremy Field passed away shortly after our match. A senior sergeant with Counties Manukau police, Jeremy was named player of the day in a hard-fought 2-1 victory at Fencibles. That evening, at his home, he died suddenly of suspected heart failure.

Jeremy Field, pictured playing rugby for Counties Manukau East Police, was a keen rugby, soccer and league player. Photo: supplied.

A lifelong sportsman and family man, the father-of-two was just 42. His loss was widely felt, with around 1000 people attending his funeral.

Among them were six of his closest mates from the Rebels – five of whom were on the pitch when Jimmy collapsed.

It’s not clear if playing football the day he died contributed to Jeremy’s death, but it was close enough to home to leave our team badly shaken. For some, what's happened to Jimmy is almost too much to take.

“Screw this,” a distraught team mate says as paramedics arrive at the scene.

For us, there’s nothing more to be done but wish the shattered Tuakau players all the best. Having turned up for a spot of harmless recreation and exercise, it’s a surreal way to depart a sports ground.

That evening, a member of the Tuakau team sends through the news we feared had been coming. Jimmy had been taken to Auckland Hospital via the Westpac Auckland Rescue Helicopter, but there was no hope he would survive. The Tuakau players were on their way to say their goodbyes.

Everyone in Tuakau knew James Narayan, his sister Jessie said. Photo: Supplied

James “Jimmy Sparks” Narayan - also known as James Bennion - was 38. A Fijian national, he was an electrician by trade. Tragically, his father had passed away in Fiji a month earlier.

A stalwart of the Tuakau club, he played 150 consecutive games for the club’s first team before ‘retiring’ to the masters ranks.

Everyone in the Waikato township knew Jimmy, his sister Jessie told the New Zealand Herald.

Like Jeremy, Jimmy’s passing was deeply, and widely, felt. A community fundraising effort swiftly raised enough money to transport his body home, with enough left over to make a donation to his family.

I played just the one game with Jeremy, and didn’t know him well. News of his death shocked and saddened me, but I didn’t take it personally. Jimmy’s death hit me hard.

It left me feeling angry and helpless. It bothered me that we’d failed Jimmy; that a group of capable, motivated adults collectively couldn’t save him. Things that were usually important to me – like sports results – suddenly seemed trivial. And trivial things, like my kids’ petty squabbling, made me disproportionately angry.

When the raw emotions faded, they were replaced by questions: what was going on? How could people die while enjoying a harmless pastime that was supposed to be good for you? How often did this happen? Are we taking our lives in our hands every time we step onto a sports field or go for a jog?

There are no easy answers. Reliable statistics about how many people suffer cardiac events during or shortly after sporting events simply do not exist.

My first enquiry was to St John Ambulance, the charity organisation we never really think of unless to give silent thanks a passing ambulance is not rushing to the aid of one of our own - or until we do really need them.

St John keeps statistics about cardiac events attended by its staff, but they aren’t detailed enough to ascertain how many heart attacks occur at sports events across the country each year – nor do they deeply detail the demographics of those affected.

It does, however, produce an annual Out of Hospital Cardiac Arrest Report. And it’s grim reading.

“Numbers to survive a cardiac arrest are universally low,” the second paragraph states. “Of the approximately 40 people treated for cardiac arrest by St John each week, 12 are successfully resuscitated and transported to hospital and only six will later survive to be discharged.”

For people who suffer cardiac arrest outside of a hospital, that’s a survival rate of just 16 percent.

The New Zealand survival rate is higher than that of Victoria, Australia (10 percent) and London, England (9 percent).

St John seems fairly proud of that, but there is no sugar-coating the reality of cardiac arrest.

“Death from cardiac arrest is our ‘silent toll’,” says St John Medical Director Dr Tony Smith in a press release that accompanies the 2015/16 report. “It can happen to anyone of any age, including children. We remain focused on reducing this toll, but we can’t do it alone. We need all New Zealanders to help by knowing how to do CPR and use a defibrillator (or AED).”

There’s more.

“For every minute without CPR or defibrillation, a patient’s chance of survival falls by 10-15 percent,” Dr Smith notes.

It’s a selfish reaction, but for me there is some solace to be had in these grim statistics. The harsh reality is, despite our best efforts, the odds were always well and truly stacked against Jimmy’s survival from the moment he collapsed.

An autopsy later confirmed he died of a blocked artery.

Jeremy, too, was at long odds to survive despite being among the 67 percent of cardiac arrest victims who are afflicted in their homes.

Like St John, ACC doesn’t possess any meaningful statistics about how many Kiwis die on our sports pitches. ACC’s data is based on claims, a spokesman explains, and, while claims may be submitted retrospectively by medical staff following a death to account for the cost of treatment, that data set doesn’t cover cardiac arrest as it is not considered an accident.

The Coroner’s Office isn’t much help, either. Coroners’ reports list primary and secondary causes of death, which would capture cardiac arrest, but where the attack happened and what the person was doing isn’t easily searchable. And the coroner, by definition, doesn’t have any record of survivors.

There is no definitive way of knowing, it seems, exactly how many weekend warriors pay the ultimate price for their pursuit – or come very close to doing to so.

But, as was the case with Jimmy and Jeremy, the majority of these tragedies are reported in the media.

Tania Dalton, pictured at the netball world champs in Jamaica in 2003. Photo: Getty Images

Much-loved former Silver Fern Tania Dalton’s death in March while playing touch rugby received significant national coverage. Dalton was just 45 when she suffered a massive, fatal aneurysm.

On the same day that James Narayan passed away in Tuakau, 19-year-old Daniel Baldwin suffered a fatal head injury in a rugby match in Wellington. Baldwin’s death follows that of Northland teenager Jordan Kemp in 2014 and North Harbour club player Viliami Halaifonua a year earlier.

A week after Baldwin’s fatal injury, 22-year-old Tasman club rugby player Bevan Moody suffered what would prove to be a fatal cardiac arrest in a match between Waitohi and Nelson.

It’s hard to know what to make of those reports, but they don’t tend to suggest that masters sport is particularly dangerous; that overweight old codgers who should have given up long ago are dropping dead regularly from heart attacks.

Of the five widely-reported sports deaths this year, two were attributed to cardiac arrest. Even including Jeremy’s post-match death (which has not been conclusively linked to sports participation), that’s just three cardiac sports deaths this year, with the oldest victim being 42.

An internet search for more sports-related fatalities accidently uncovers this RNZ piece detailing seven workplace deaths in a single fortnight in April – three in forestry, two in farming and two in construction.

In that context, masters sport doesn’t appear all that dangerous. That feeling – and due to lack of hard data it really is just feeling - is backed by the experience of the recent World Masters Games in Auckland.

The event featured nearly 25,000 athletes, of whom a good portion were over 50, competing across 28 sports at 48 venues. There was just one serious medical event – a cardiac arrest at a rugby gamePonsonby player Steve Ioane survived, becoming a lucky 16 percenter in the process.

The harsh reality is that the odds were stacked against Jimmy’s survival from the moment he collapsed.

A week after Jimmy’s death, Tuakau were back in action. As fate would have it, they were drawn to play our sister side, the BMAFC Coasters, at Te Puru Park, near Beachlands. Attended by most of the Rebels players who had played in the fixture a week earlier, the match began with a minute’s silence, and ended with a clubhouse toast to absent friends.

Tuakau were below strength - not because any of their players had decided to give the game away or skip the match; but because six of the club’s players had yet to return from accompanying Jimmy’s body to Fiji.

They never considered not playing, Tuakau’s captain says in a post-match speech. Jimmy would have wanted them to play.

A week later, the Rebels return to the field for the first time since losing Jeremy and Jimmy in the space of a fortnight. We notch a bitterly contested 2-0 victory over Otahuhu.

Late in the game, I’m absolutely knackered. It’s hard not to think about Jimmy. Due to a combination of weight, high blood pressure and alcohol consumption, my own cardiac risk profile is, as my GP kindly puts it, “higher than it should be”. But I’m not overly concerned. I’m eight to 10kg lighter than when I first returned to the field as a masters player six years ago, and much fitter.

I figure the danger period has passed, and rationalise that my health is at greater risk if I don’t exercise than if I do. Then again, Jimmy Narayan was the youngest, fittest looking bloke on the pitch. He hadn’t been to a doctor in as long as anyone could remember, Cameron says. His condition was totally undiagnosed.

Tempers flare. Two Otahuhu players are sent off. The weekend warriors are back at war, squabbling over the right to be crowned champions of one of the lowest football leagues in the country. The games go on.

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