Learning CPR a lifesaver for Diehl family
New Fairfield lacrosse player helped save father’s life
Zack Diehl was taking a shower early in the evening of Nov. 12 when he heard his younger sister Danielle screaming in the hallway. He didn’t bother to grab a towel to dry off.
“I jumped out of the shower, tossed on some shorts and ran downstairs,” Zack said. “I saw my dad unresponsive. We got him on the floor.”
Seconds earlier, Zack’s mom Sandy was in the living room of the family’s New Fairfield home doing work on her computer. Her husband Don sat in the recliner. The television news was on.
Sandy glanced over at her man.
“His eyes were rolled back,” she said. “He looked like he wasn’t breathing.”
Sandy yelled. Danielle yelled. Zack rushed down the stairs.
Across the playing fields of Connecticut last weekend, there was a feeling of great renewal. For the first time in two years, thousands of high school athletes could play their spring games. COVID has released its grip. They were able to run out to center field, line up in the starting blocks, or in Zack Diehl’s case, take his position on defense on the New Fairfield lacrosse team.
Yes, Saturday, Zack Diehl’s 18th birthday, was a great day. Goals with the long pole are always a treat and he scored one in the rout of Stratford. New Fairfield, which routed Brookfield on Tuesday, is ranked No. 7 in the state.
“After what happened with my dad, I was in a dark place, thinking about a lot of things, worst case scenarios,” Zack said. “And you had last season can
celed. The seniors, they didn’t get their last chance. I felt really bad for them. To be able to go out there my senior year, to get to play, I’m so glad — 100 percent it felt great.”
COVID nearly claimed Don Diehl’s life. If not for the quick response of his son, it’s fair to say it would have. This is a story the Diehl family is kind enough to tell with one caveat.
Spread the word about the powers of CPR and first-aid training. Spread the word about the powers of Automated External Defibrillators. Spread the word about the locations of AEDs and enhance training for their use.
With Don in deep trouble, Danielle called 911. Zack and Sandy immediately started CPR. Sandy is a nurse. She knows CPR. Seeing her husband unresponsive also was overwhelming. Danielle ran to a neighbor’s house for more help.
“Checking his vitals, seeing if he was breathing, seeing if he had a pulse,” Zack said. “Struggling breathing, no pulse, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I have to do CPR.’ I had my mom there. She was really upset. I felt like I knew what I had do to.”
“Zack really calmed me down,” Sandy said. “He’s like, ‘Mom, we can do this. ABC. Airway. Breathing. Circulation. Let’s go.’”
New Fairfield High offers a lifeguard course and CPR is part of the program. Zack has been a lifeguard at the town beach on Candlewood Lake.
“I was hoping I’d never have to use it,” he said. “It was just so important to know CPR. Unfortunately, my family has some history with heart issues. When my dad went down, I was thinking worse-case scenario. My grandpa died a couple of years back of a heart attack.”
Zack kept his poise. The Diehl’s neighbor and Zack kept up the CPR. The family’s home on the far edge of town is about 12 minutes from the fire house. This was not going to be easy at all. Zack’s older brother Derek was on his noisecancelling headphones. When he was alerted, he went down and directed the ambulance. The entrance to their home is off a dual driveway. Not a minute to be lost. They were lucky all were at home that early evening in November.
“I did the compressions,” Zack said. “My neighbor was doing the breathing. My mind was racing, but I was focused. I was locked in. I didn’t feel scared, because I knew what I was doing. It all happened so fast, it didn’t feel like 10 minutes. When EMS got here, I stepped back and told them what happened.”
EMS used the defibrillators several times. It took another six minutes to get a rhythm back. From the time 911 was called until they got a heart rhythm was 18 minutes. Eighteen excruciating minutes. When Don was admitted to the hospital his ejection fraction — how much blood the left ventricle pumps out with each contraction — was at 10 percent. Normal is 50-70 percent.
“They basically gave him less than 10 percent chance of making it,” Sandy said.
Sitting in his room, Zack wasn’t buying it.
“I was like, he’s going to pull through,” he said “I know him. He’s not going to slip away. He has got so much left to do. He wants to do so many things. He’s not going to let it all slip away.”
Don, 51, was tested for COVID. Positive. A fever from COVID had caused the cardiac event. He ended up being on a ventilator in the ICU at Danbury Hospital and remained in the hospital for two weeks. He was found to have a dysrhythmia and an underlying heart condition. If he gets a fever, it could happen again.
“We were lucky it was a witnessed cardiac event,” Sandy said. “I could have been on a walk with the dog or wherever. I was just lucky I happened to be in the living room with him.
“Zack really took over the CPR. He was amazing. He was so calm. When it was all done, when (Don) was transferred, I hugged Zack and asked him if he was OK. He said, ‘The old man would have done the same thing for me. He still has big fish to catch.”
Don and Zack are outdoorsmen. They love to fish. Well, this one was bigger than any fish story.
Don had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator inserted above his heart. The ICD responds to irregular life-threatening heart rhythms to prevent sudden cardiac arrest. It looks like an old flip phone, Sandy said. He essentially walks around with his own AED in his body.
“He’s doing really good,” Sandy said. “He has a little bit of long term and short term memory loss. He goes to a cognitive therapy program twice a week to help bring memory back and work on his skills. Otherwise, he’s great.”
He is back to work as a pharmaceutical scientist. Don was put on metoprolol. Interesting, because years ago he worked on the betablocker.
“His memory is something you can’t really tell,” Zack said. “It’s usually something small. I’m the same way. I’ll forget to do something. I can’t nitpick.”
Zack was a center on the football team. While New Fairfield’s skill position guys played 7-on-7, the linemen did things like run an obstacle course and flip tires. He snowboards in the winter. So he hadn’t actually played in a game since spring 2019 when New Fairfield won its second of back-to-back Class M titles. “A long time,” he said. In the meantime, Zack now drives a Toyota 4Runner that he jokes he got out of the ordeal. He had been driving a 2005 Pontiac Montana minivan. Dad is healthy. New whip. Lacrosse is back. Spring 2021 is good.
“I think my dad thought, ‘What if I wasn’t here? Why am I holding back?’” So Zack didn’t either. “What if I didn’t know CPR?” he said. “It’s so important. Even if it’s not the best compressions, just to get some blood flowing, get some oxygen to the brain. If I didn’t know CPR, he could have no memory, still could be in a coma. Sometimes worst case scenarios keep playing through my head. We were fortunate.
“We’re so thankful my dad is doing so well. We just want to get out there how important it is for people, for kids, to learn CPR. To have AEDs and know where they are. Especially after COVID, some of these kids get enlarged hearts and side effects. This spring more than ever it’s important to have those things on the field and ready to use.”
Zack Diehl, the kid who helped save his dad’s life, speaks from experience.