TRAVERSE CITY — Reid Ruggles witnessed an athlete die on the court once, and doesn’t want to see it again.
The current Traverse City resident’s insurance agency sponsored the Fennville High School basketball team while he lived in nearby Hamilton, so Ruggles attended every Blackhawks game but one the 2011 season. That season would later go down in infamy.
Ruggles watched from high up in the balcony, sitting on the opposite side as normal for the packed game as the Blackhawks chased history, going for school’s first 20-0 boys basketball season.
Fennville multi-sport star Wes Leonard hit a game-winning layup in overtime to clinch the victory.
Moments later, he collapsed on the gym floor.
“All of a sudden, he went to the floor and never got up,” Reid said. “It went silent.”
Leonard passed away at a hospital about two hours after the game.
“The kid was a super, super nice, humble kid,” Reid said. “He knew he was good, but didn’t push it. It’s just something I’ll never forget. It’s something I hope nobody else has to experience.”
The presence of a functioning automated external defibrillator could have saved Leonard’s life. Ruggles said there was one at Fennville, but the batteries weren’t charged.
If defibrillated within the first minute of collapse, the victim’s chances for survival are close to 90 percent. For every minute that defibrillation is delayed, survival decreases by 7 to 10 percent. If it is delayed by more than 10 minutes, the chance of survival in adults is less than 5 percent. Survival rates are even lower when only CPR is used.
“He was definitely shaken up,” Ruggles’ son Jason said. “To this day, he still chokes up when he tells the story.”
Since that fateful night, Reid Ruggles pushed to get automated external defibrillators at his churches and schools. He campaigned for Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Holland to get one when he attended there before moving north. Ruggles brought in Leonard’s mother Jocelyn to speak to the church, and a spaghetti dinner raised the funds to buy one.
Once he and his wife Carol moved to the Traverse City area in 2015 to be closer to his children and grandchildren, he attended Advent Lutheran Church in Lake Ann.
“I noticed there was no AED and that got my juices flowing,” the 75-year-old Ruggles said.
The church now has one.
Ruggles’ grandson Thomas Richards plays basketball and runs on the track and cross country teams as a junior at Traverse City St. Francis. His twin granddaughters Ellie and Kate run track and play basketball at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Middle School.
St. Francis owned six AEDs last year, including portable ones that travel with the football and lacrosse teams. But Ruggles noticed the cross country and track teams didn’t have one of their own. Those juices started flowing again.
“It’s not just for the kids,” Ruggles said. “It’s just as likely for a parent or grandparent like me. It’s a long way to the school from where races are usually held.
“Nobody thinks much about an AED. It’s on the wall at the hospital or fire department. You don’t think about it until you need it — and then you hope it works.”
He said his goal is to have every team at TCSF have its own AED to travel with.
Fennville’s basketball coach at the time Leonard passed away, Ryan Klingler, now works with the Wes Leonard Foundation.
The Ruggles family is almost ubiquitous at St. Francis track and cross country events, even though most aren’t in Traverse City. Jason doesn’t have any children of his own, but is known as “Uncle Jason” by the team, and takes photos of all the Gladiators at races.
St. Francis applied to the Wes Leonard Foundation for a portable AED unit, but hadn’t heard anything back. That’s when Jason Ruggles took matters into his own hands.
He knew exactly which model to purchase. The 50-year-old worked for eight years as a paramedic and another eight as a fireman. He worked one department north of the one called in to assist when Leonard fell unconscious.
Ruggles worked a lot of overtime at Long Lake Marina last fall and this spring, socking away a good portion of that money to purchase the AED, spending $1,700 on a top-of-the-line model, the Zoll AED Plus. It’s the same model in the hallways of Munson Medical Center.
That model administers the shock for you, and will only release a shock if it detects that the patient needs it. It also comes with a CPR mask and scissors to cut through a uniform, if necessary. The paddles have to be applied to bare skin on the chest.
Any Gladiators team can use it when the track or X-C teams aren’t.
Jason, who moved to Traverse City two years after his parents, donated it to St. Francis in August on behalf of his nephew and nieces.
“We’re hoping this will spread a bit and more people will get on board,” Reid said. “You never know when this will happen.”
Jennifer Richards, Jason’s younger sister by 16 months and Thomas’ mother, said the donation eased the minds of everyone in the family, especially her father.
“Anything traumatic has a lasting impact on life,” Richards said. “It became personal for my dad. There’s not a time now when my dad goes to basketball games and doesn’t think of it. It made a lasting impact on him.”
Wes Leonard’s story isn’t alone.
Cardiac arrest in high schooler remains very uncommon, but its instances make no less of an impact.
Tylor Higgins, an 18-year-old DeWitt graduate and assistant coach on the swimming team there, collapsed and died in the school’s parking lot after playing basketball during a cross-training workout with the wrestling team.
Troy Athens student-athlete Kimberly Gillary died at age 15 during a water polo at Birmingham Groves.
An autopsy later revealed a previously undetected condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which can thicken the lining of the heart muscle. Her parents later raised funds to donate AEDs to both Athens and Groves.
Xavier Carter, a 15-year-old Lincoln Park sophomore, died during basketball tryouts in 2017 from cardiac arrest.
Grosse Pointe South freshman girls coach Bob Zaranek collapsed during halftime of a January 2020 girls varsity game between rivals Grosse Pointe North and South. Zaranek was running the clock, and a nearby AED in South’s gym and the quick reactions of a nurse in the stands, South’s JV coach and a police officer saved Zaranek’s life.
Skylar Lasby, a 13-year-old seventh grader at Saranac, collapsed during a non-contact football drill and died later that night in August 2019.
Grand Rapids Drive player Zeke Upshaw passed away at age 26 from sudden cardiac death, falling to the floor during a 2018 NBA G-League basketball game at the DeltaPlex.
Fruitport Calvary Christian basketball player Luke Anhalt collapsed on the gym floor during free-throw drill during a 2018 practice.
Coach Jeff Zehr used a AED located in the corner of the gym and resuscitated Anhalt.
“Time is everything when something like that happens,” Richards said. “We have this idea that kids are indestructible, but it can affect anybody.”
Neither the state nor the MHSAA require schools to have AEDs, but MHSAA varsity head coaches must undergo CPR and AED training. The same training is also available to assistant coaches that are interested.
When portable AEDs first hit the market, they cost in the range of $3,000-4,000 each. Prices have lowered, but units still cost well over $1,000 apiece. It’s the most repeated reason why schools don’t have even more than they already do.
TO THE RESCUE
Brandon Parcell heard Fred Bryant yell his name during a junior varsity girls basketball game last January.
He heard the urgency in Bryant’s voice.
“My head whipped around,” the 26-year-old certified athletic trainer at Cadillac Area Public Schools said.
Slumped up to a chair next the court was basketball referee Dale Westdorp, who stumbled toward the scorer’s table during the second quarter and didn’t get that far as he suffered a heart attack.
Parcell and school liaison officer Deputy Jason Straight started CPR on Westdorp and Bryant retrieved an AED from an enclosed case across the hall from the gymnasium and called 9-1-1.
Several Gaylord fans in attendance who happened to be nurses also acted.
Bryant, who took over as athletic director three years ago after moving from Newberry, implemented emergency action plans. The plans detail responses to emergencies at every CAPS athletic facility.
So when EMTs arrived, they came to the correct entrance, only about 10 feet from Westdorp.
At the Vikings’ second meeting of the season against the Blue Devils, this one in on the road, Westdorp attended the game to help honor the Cadillac staff and Gaylord fans who aided in his resuscitation.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Cadillac had the most AEDs of any local school district responding to a Record-Eagle survey about AED usage.
The Vikings possess 15 throughout the district. All are portable, although teams do not take them to road games unless Parcell travels with the team.
“There’s a huge emphasis now on having AEDs,” Parcell said. “They really save lives.”
AED SAVED LABELLE’S LIFE
Ben LaBelle got lucky when he suffered a heart attack during the 2013 Arcadia Days 5k race.
He collapsed by the finish line, which happened to be near the Arcadia Volunteer Fire Department, which had an AED.
And he happened to have a nurse running right behind him. Jennifer DeVries was a critical care nurse who since moved out of the state. Mary Strong, another nurse, was watching the race’s end. The two helped bring him back to life.
LaBelle, an assistant coach on the TC St. Francis track and field and cross country teams, said he was “dead on the scene” and doesn’t remember much about the whole day, other than being dehydrated on a hot summer day. He was in a coma for 10 days afterward. He didn’t know anyone there and didn’t carry ID during the race, and police used a key fob attached to his shoe to find LaBelle’s truck and identify him.
LaBelle attended the 2014 race, but didn’t run in it. Instead, he took flowers to DeVries as she ran the race again. LaBelle would run the race again in 2015 and 2017.
“Being on the receiving end is good,” LaBelle said.
Now, he carries the track team’s AED in his pickup truck, although he shouldn’t ever need it again. He’s since had surgery that implanted a pacemaker.
But it’s there in case anyone at a TCSF cross country or track event or practice ever needs it. When not in use, it goes in the trackside shed at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Middle School.
“You just have to open up the case and it prompts you through the whole procedure,” LaBelle said. “It’s an amazing thing.”
LaBelle knew he had an issue prior to the Arcadia Days race.
“I had lived my life knowing a valve replacement was in my future,” LaBelle said.
That happened in 2014 after the Arcadia incident.
Now the 68-year-old runs the VASA trail.
“It took awhile for my wife to let me do these kinds of things,” LaBelle joked. “’You’re going to go run in the woods? Alone?’ she’d say.”
None of the Ruggles family knew about LaBelle’s own AED experience when they sought one for the team.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
Kirsten Seif joined the YMCA swim team when she moved to Traverse City from Columbus, Ohio, three years ago.
Late at the 2019 state Masters meet at Waterford, during the last event of the three-day event’s second day, Seif heard a coach frantically calling for help. An older man had fell on the pool deck and went into cardiac arrest.
“The nurse in me, I immediately ran over,” Seif said.
Another nurse happened to be in the competition as well, and the two administered CPR while someone else fetched an AED. They administered two shocks, and the man survived the heart attack and later had stents put in, Seif said.
“Before that, I didn’t even notice them,” said Seif, a 39-year-old nurse at Munson’s cancer infusion clinic. “But now I’ve been an advocate of having them on deck or at the event. I think that’s what saved his life.”
Phyllis Olszewski keeps an AED right on the scorer’s table at East Jordan basketball games. That way, everyone knows exactly where it is.
“They’re very expensive,” the East Jordan athletic director said. “That’s why I can’t put one with every first-aid kit.”
The Red Devils own eight, all portable, dedicating two to the athletic department. The district bought a half dozen and received two through grants, including one from the Wes Leonard Foundation. Boyne City, Alba, Northport, Charlevoix and Glen Lake also received one each from the foundation.
“I can’t imagine ever losing a child,” Olszewski said. “(The Wes Leonard Foundation) will never know the impact they have had and their generosity. Thankfully, we’ve never had to use it, but it goes everywhere.”
School AED policies vary widely.
Many — such as Glen Lake, Charlevoix, Petoskey, Manistee and TC Central — send one with any team that’s accompanied by an athletic trainer.
Others — including Manistee Catholic, Manton and Kalkaska — have an AED for all road events.
Many others vary by sport. Suttons Bay owns one specifically for the football team. Gaylord sends them with any team commonly participating in events not at a school — cross country, skiing, golf and bowling.
TC St. Francis has AEDs dedicated to the track/cross country team, as well as football and lacrosse.
Locations vary as well, although most schools with more than one have one of them in or adjacent to the gymnasium. Most were acquired in the last decade.