Jerry Skaife doesn’t remember coming back from the dead.
One moment he’s in the gym at Spokane Falls Community College, on the periphery of another game of 4-on-4, trying to catch his breath.
The next he’s home, three weeks later, reconstructing a memory scrambled by a near-fatal heart attack.
It happened on the afternoon of April 30. Skaife, the picture of eternal youth, was suddenly on his back on the gym floor, his memory checking out while his life passed into the hands of others.
Nearly a year later, by all outward appearances his old self again, he’s approaching retirement. After 30 years of teaching and coaching - seven at Washtucna, two at Medical Lake and 21 at Community Colleges of Spokane - Jerry Skaife is stepping down.
Although retirement may be just a pause between the college and the next opportunity, Skaife wrestles with the certainty that he’ll miss The Falls and its people. And he leaves with some uncertainty over what’s next.
Yet the conflicting sentiments and the odd sensation of retirement represent a blessing, considering all that had to go right for this to happen.
Last April. There was Skaife, the now-53-year-old with the 30-something body, with the usual band of cutthroats in the daily challenge of 4-on-4 at The Falls. Standing out in the otherwise all-male cast is Skaife’s wife, Janet, once his star player at CCS and 30 years his junior.
Janet Wolkey Skaife is moving up the floor, when she notices the commotion over a prostrate Jerry.
“Jerry, are you OK?,” she says, grabbing his hand.
Skaife’s eyes open and he says “What?”
Bruce Johnson asks if he’s all right.
“That’s when his eyes just lost their focus and rolled back in his head,” Janet said. “I was saying relax, relax with no idea that it was a heart attack. Then I heard Bruce’s words, ‘Stopped breathing!’ Somebody else said ‘Weak pulse!’ And then it was ‘No pulse!’
“That’s when I just stepped away. I’ve heard of so many instances of the hysterical wife right there, getting in the way. They took over, Reggie Smith and Bruce Johnson.”
Smith - known as Doc - and Johnson, the women’s basketball coach, began two-man CPR.
Janet Skaife shivers at the recall.
“While he was lying there unconscious - basically he was dead - I said, ‘Hang in there. I can’t even begin to think of what life would be like without you.’ That’s when his buddies were yelling, ‘C’mon, don’t give up! Fight.’ You hear stories that the last thing that goes is the hearing. I kept talking.”
Smith and Johnson worked on Skaife “for I think 8 minutes,” Janet Skaife said. “When the ambulance arrived - I was in the parking lot, waiting, making sure they knew where to go - the paramedics tried for 3 minutes to revive him.”
They shocked him once. No response. “They zapped him for sure twice and that ended up getting his heart going,” Janet Skaife said. “I prayed. I said, ‘God just give him one more chance because he’s not a Christian.’ I told myself he just needs another chance. When I heard the sirens an absolute calm went through my body, and I never believed for a second that he wasn’t going to be OK.
“When the paramedic said ‘Strong pulse!’ I said, ‘There it is.’ People were coming in, grown men were crying and hugging me.”
The crisis was over, but the sometimes painful revelations of rehabilitation were just starting.
Comatose, Skaife lay in Sacred Heart Medical Center for 34 hours before his wife saw a spark.
“The nurses didn’t want me to be too optimistic,” Janet Skaife said. “They said he couldn’t focus, but his eyes were moving. He was able to track my finger. Finally, about 2 o’clock in the morning - 34 hours into his coma - I was running through again the people who called and who had been there. I said ‘All these people love you, but nobody loves you like I do.’ I looked into his eyes and thought I saw him focusing. I said again, ‘You know how much I love you, don’t you?’
“He blinked,” Janet Skaife said. “I could tell he understood. A tear came out of one of his eyes. I said, ‘You can understand me, can’t you?’ He nodded. I yelled for the nurse.”
Skaife had been staring straight up. When the nurse asked, “Can you hear me?” he turned his head and nodded.
He would recover. A basketball star at Idaho, at Columbia Basin CC and Rogers High, the standout in scores of tournaments from the state and national levels to the long-forgotten - Jerry Skaife began walking in a deliberate shuffle.
Gradually he reclaimed the body that was sculpted to play guard. In his coming around there were moments of profound sadness. His memory loss was acute. Much of it has come back, although some short-term recall is impaired.
Skaife had to learn all over again that his father had died.
“His mom came in and held his hand,” Janet Skaife said. “He said ‘Hi mom. Where’s dad?”’
Dad’s not with us anymore Jerry, he died last year.
“He looked at his mother with the worst look of sadness,” Janet said. “He just closed his eyes and dropped his head. His mother cried.”
The same revelation had to repeated. Upon seeing his mother again, Skaife cheerfully asked about his father and the nightmare of losing a parent revisited the hospital room.
Skaife woke up to find he was married.
“The funny part was - at least we laugh about it now - is that I’m lying on a cot in the back of the room and Jerry is telling the doctor that I’m his girlfriend,” Janet said. “I got up and said ‘Wait a second. I’ve got the pictures.”’
Basketball would be a foundation of rehab.
“I made sure I was there the first time he played,” Janet Skaife said. “He was just kind of huffing and puffing and pacing himself. He didn’t shoot, which is memorable in itself, but with a lot of work over six months he continued to get it back, a little bit at a time.”
The irony is that Skaife retires just as he’s back to full strength, or close to it.
“I guess I’m excited for him, but he has so much to offer he’ll be missed,” Janet said. “I’d like to see two things come into his retirement. God and golf.”
Which takes Janet Skaife back to the miracle. It was more than a physical recovery. Skaife had to retrace his earliest steps as a teacher.
“For a while he wouldn’t talk much because he was unsure - that what he’d say wouldn’t make sense,” she said. “Last semester he didn’t feel he did a very good job of teaching. He feels he did a lot better job this semester.”
So he quits on that high, fulfilling a pledge to make room for the next generation.
“I really enjoyed doing the things I did,” said Skaife, who coached men’s and women’s basketball and with Bill Johnson introduced women’s softball at CCS, the program he heads today. “I’ve always thought that when my 30 years were up I’d try to step out of the way, so somebody else has an opportunity to do the kinds of the things I’ve done.”
As for what’s next, he’s signed up for Hoopfest. He’s taking his cuts in softball. He wants to coach somewhere, sometime.
And though he’ll miss afternoon hoop at The Falls, he’ll always find somebody - Janet for one - to take on one-on-one.
With a slightly altered dynamic.
The game means as much as ever.
The games don’t.
“We’re still competitive,” Skaife says of the daily faculty ratball at The Falls. “Winning is still important, but now it’s not quite the same. We play as hard, but maybe take what comes - the winning or losing - just a little more sensibly now.”
To Jerry Skaife, after all these years, winning and losing is no longer life and death.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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