PORTLAND, Ore – The day Alberto Salazar nearly died, he arrived at the Nike world headquarters in suburban Beaverton with athletes Galen Rupp, Josh Rohatinsky and Jared Rohatinsky in tow.
It was a Saturday, the last day in June, at first unremarkable. Salazar, as lean and seemingly fit as when he won three consecutive New York City Marathons in the early ’80s, planned to put Rupp and the Rohatinskys through a brisk series of calisthenics and plyometric drills for an hour and then, perhaps, go for a run.
The four were talking about the best places to eat lunch as they walked from the parking lot to soccer fields near the center of campus. As they reached the northwest corner of the fields, Salazar felt a sharp pain in his neck and dizziness. He went down to one knee, so if he passed out he wouldn’t fall and hit his head.
The athletes moved a few feet away to give Salazar room. Then, they saw him slump to the ground.
“You could tell, when he fell he was out,” Rupp said. “His face was super blue. We were scared. We knew we needed to get help.”
Rupp dialed 911 on his cell phone. Josh Rohatinsky dashed into an adjacent fitness center asking for help and a phone. Jared Rohatinsky ran toward the east end of the fields, where the Xtreme Sports football camp was being conducted, to look for a trainer.
Louis Barahona, a combat medic with the 41st Infantry Brigade of the Oregon National Guard, was on the camp staff and rushed to help.
“I found a guy laying on the ground and not doing well,” Barahona said. “He was blue. He was trying to breathe, but he wasn’t breathing effectively. I rolled him over and checked for his pulse. He didn’t have a pulse.”
By then, Doug Douglass, an emergency room doctor at Adventist Medical Center and a former University of Oregon football player who was working as a coach at the camp, had run toward the knot of people around the prone man. Together, Barahona and Douglass began CPR.
They were still working on him moments later, when emergency medical technicians from Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue pulled up.
Salazar didn’t have a consistent heartbeat. The EMTs brought out the defibrillator. They placed the paddles on Salazar and jolted him. Nothing. They jolted him again. Nothing. They jolted him again. Nothing.
“When they got there, I thought he’s finally going to make it through this,” Rupp said. “But after they shocked him a couple times, I was really scared. It was like watching your dad die.”
The fourth time the EMTs put the paddles on Salazar’s chest and shocked him, his heart finally began beating.
Heart attacks are the leading killer of U.S. men and women, sometimes striking those who appear too young and healthy to have cause for concern.
Salazar, 48, coaches the Nike Oregon Project, working with top distance runners such as Rupp, Adam Goucher and Kara Goucher. Until the day he collapsed, he ran 30 miles a week.
Dr. Todd Caulfield, medical director for interventional cardiac research for the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute, said it was “uncommon but not an extraordinary event by any means” for someone as young and physically fit as Salazar to suffer a heart attack.
In this case, Salazar had genetic reasons for concern. Both his grandfathers had coronary heart disease.
“You can’t control your family history,” said Caulfield, who treated Salazar during his weeklong stay at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. “That’s why he was burned.”
But not burned up. Salazar was back on the job nine days after suffering his heart attack and two days after being released from the hospital. He has an implanted stent to widen his right coronary artery, an implanted defibrillator to control his heart rhythm, and a survivor’s outlook on life.
“I don’t feel lucky that I dodged a bullet,” Salazar said. “I feel lucky it happened.”
Lucky because he got a close look at his own mortality and found a new perspective.
“This made me really think about how inconsequential running is,” he said.
“I could be gone right now, and what would it have mattered? What was my life of 48 years all about?”
Salazar has a well-deserved reputation as a coach who takes a personal interest in every detail. He keeps a close tether on every aspect of his athletes’ training.
As the U.S. Track & Field Championships, June 20 through 24 in Indianapolis, approached, Salazar fretted about Rupp’s respiratory infection and a foot problem hindering Adam Goucher. Rupp, who also runs for the University of Oregon, and Goucher both needed a top-three finish to make the U.S. team for the world championships.
On the day the Oregon Project contingent arrived in Indianapolis, Salazar first felt the sharp pain in his neck, dizziness and shortness of breath. He told himself he must have dozed in an awkward position on the plane, and that the stress was causing him to sleep poorly at night.
After returning to Portland, Salazar found himself growing light-headed and struggling to breathe just a quarter-mile into his daily run. Salazar, who has asthma, decided later he must not have properly used his inhaler.
A day later, at home, he again felt the sharp pain in his back and dizziness. This time it was accompanied by nausea.
Salazar’s wife, Molly, and daughter, Maria, were out of town. Alarmed, he phoned his grown sons, Alex and Tony, to stay with him until he felt better.
That episode persuaded Salazar to visit his primary care physician, who found no obvious problem. She referred him to a cardiologist to be safe. The next day, he went to the training session at Nike, and collapsed.
Caulfield, the St. Vincent cardiologist, said the quick response by Barahona and Douglass and the professionalism of the EMTs made a crucial difference.
“He had high-quality CPR for 15 minutes,” Caulfield said. “That’s the main reason he’s able to talk to you now.”
As it is, Salazar’s recovery is virtually complete. An ultrasound examination before he was released showed no obvious damage.
Caulfield said there are some small areas of scar tissue, but they don’t seem to interfere with Salazar’s heart function.
“His heart squeezes like a normal heart,” Caulfield said.
To all outward indications, Salazar appears as he always has. He worked Monday for an hour with Rupp, Josh Rohatinsky and Amy Begley. He was hands-on, demonstrating proper form for calisthenics and plyometric drills.
Inwardly, he insists, he is different. Every moment has become precious. Every routine event, special.
An observant Roman Catholic, Salazar has rosary beads blessed by Pope John Paul II and a crucifix blessed by Pope Benedict XVI. He had lent them to the family of a neighbor, when the neighbor was hospitalized with a near-fatal illness. He recovered.
Salazar’s first memory in the hospital was waking up with the rosary in his hands and seeing the crucifix on a nearby table.
To Salazar the lesson was simple, the message profound: to live his faith more fully, to treasure his family more closely, to heed his body and to put the highest value on what matters most.
To make the most of his second chance.
LF END GOE
(Ken Goe is a staff writer for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at kengoe(at)news.oregonian.com.)