CHICAGO – The second Don Fuller’s fist went into the air, the Wild’s emergency action plan was initiated.
The response by two athletic trainers, a half-dozen doctors and a team of paramedics to defenseman Keith Ballard’s frightening medical situation last Tuesday was quick and impressive, but something like that doesn’t occur by accident.
This is the type of situation the Wild practices before the season and throughout, and the fact that Ballard was stabilized and transported to Regions Hospital minutes after convulsing on the ice reaffirmed to the Wild’s medical team that practice does make perfect.
“It went exactly the way we had practiced it, and I was real happy with our response and real happy with how everything and everybody just fell into place,” said Fuller, the Wild’s head athletic therapist since the franchise’s inception. “You have to expect the unexpected and prepare for anything, and then react to the situation as everybody did.
“We did what was needed. We got the player off safely and effectively and transported to the hospital quickly.”
In September before every hockey season, Fuller and athletic trainer John Worley get all eight of the Wild’s doctors together, along with emergency medical technicians and emergency trauma doctors who work each Wild game. They spend an afternoon running through various emergency scenarios so everybody knows his role and place. The scenarios include heart attack, traumatic bleeding, spinal boarding, concussions and several other potential incidents.
This season, in a change stemming from March’s incident in Dallas where Stars forward Rich Peverley collapsed on the bench and had to be resuscitated due to a heart condition, the NHL has mandated that each home team also situates a doctor near the bench who is an expert in Advanced Trauma and Advanced Cardiac Life Support.
In addition, two ambulances must work every NHL game.
When Ballard was hit from behind by the Islanders’ Matt Martin between the two benches, Fuller jumped on the ice, worked to get Ballard’s mouthguard out so he wouldn’t choke, then turned the shaking player to his side to open his airway.
Once Fuller’s fist went up, Worley, the longtime former head trainer of the Philadelphia Flyers, and massage therapist Travis Green jumped on to assist. At that point, a security guard working in the tunnel leading to the Wild locker room lifted a railing so Regions Hospital medical director RJ Frascone, the on-duty trauma specialist, could jump from the stands and onto the ice. He was sitting in the first row behind backup goalie Darcy Kuemper.
Paramedics raced onto the ice from the Zamboni entrance and Wild doctors Dan Peterson, Sheldon Burns, Brad Nelson, Chris Larson and Harley Dresner ran to the ice from the locker room.
There was a medical team of about a dozen assisting on the ice.
“There were a lot of qualified people on the ice, that’s all I know,” Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “Whatever Donny did, he knew exactly what he was doing.”
In Fuller’s 14 seasons, the two most serious medical situations he has dealt with were Kurtis Foster breaking his femur in San Jose in 2008 (Foster, who now plays in Slovakia, was in shock and immense pain on the ice and faced a 10-hour emergency surgery and excruciating recovery) and this one with Ballard.
“It’s the first time that I can recall that somebody was unconscious and then started to get combative,” Fuller said. “It was almost like a little bit of a wrestling match as [Worley and I] tried to hold him down. He was moving all over the place.
“That often happens when somebody’s unconscious and they’re slowly coming through and they’re disoriented and incoherent. It can be a difficult situation, but the guys handled it great.”
Within five minutes, Ballard was helped off the ice and on his way to the hospital with a concussion and three fractures to the right side of his face. It will be decided this week if Ballard needs surgery, but his season and perhaps his career could be in jeopardy.
“Standing there on the bench — and I was probably 2 feet away watching it all go down — it was amazing how good a job Don did and then how fast everyone else was out there,” Wild defenseman Ryan Suter said. “You see these doctors show up every game and they’re sitting having their dinner in the back room and then the emergency room guy walks in and says hi.
“You almost take it for granted. But then to see how well they work together and what they did for Keith, it gives you a lot of confidence as a player. It makes you feel like you’re in good hands.”
Fuller, in sneakers, sometimes rushes onto the ice three or four times a game to help an injured player. He said the Ballard incident was a good reminder even to him that everything isn’t always routine. There have been critical, life-threatening incidents throughout time in the NHL, from Buffalo’s Clint Malarchuk and Florida’s Richard Zednik having their carotid arteries severed to Detroit’s Jiri Fischer having a heart attack on the bench to Montreal’s Trent McCleary fracturing his larynx after being hit with a puck.
“You just try to be prepared for the worst and hope you never have to deal with that situation,” Fuller said. “But if we do have to, we’re ready for it. It is rewarding to know you can help a player through any situation.”