A million-plus Americans have heart attacks each year.
Bob Rowles joined these sobering numbers on a hard court about 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 14.
“I was playing tennis and all of a sudden I woke up in the hospital,” the 83-year-old told me when I asked him about the experience.
Rowles, witnesses say, was standing near the service line on Court 3 of the Spokane Club’s Valley athletic facility on East Fourth Avenue when he went down.
Having a heart attack can be like running a Swiffer over your memory banks, apparently.
But missing a few hours is a small toll to pay for survival. The dark side of that million-plus figure is that nearly half don’t live to be interviewed.
Which brings us to the reason Rowles is still around.
“One of the paramedics told me, ‘You saved that man’s life today,’ ” the 25-year-old said.
“That’s when it hit me. My stomach got a little sick. I got a little pale. That’s when I got nervous.”
Brito considers Spokane a “perfect” cross between giant Caracas, his Venezuelan hometown, and tiny Fayette, Iowa, where he went to college and played third base.
“I can throw the ball pretty hard,” he said, grinning when I asked if he had a gun.
Brito fell in love with the Spokane area in 2007. He lived with a host family while finishing his senior year of high school at West Valley.
Compact, muscular and highly personable, Brito oversees the club’s conditioning room, helping members work out safely. The job had been his for barely a few weeks when he found himself starring in a life-and-death drama.
Brito was up for the role. He had taken a CPR class last year while attending Upper Iowa University, where he majored in sports communication with a marketing minor.
Playing baseball from age 4 through college had put Brito in plenty of pressure situations. Athletes learn the importance of focus and how to “control the things you can control.”
That, he added, is “easier said than done. But once I learned it, that’s when I started to become successful.”
Having someone’s life literally in your hands, however, is a whole different ball game.
In one of those happy coincidences, Brito had been called to the front desk at nearly the same moment tennis players were calling for help on the courts.
Without missing a beat, he asked manager Becca Stoner to call 911 while he headed calmly, though quickly, out to Court 3.
What he found wasn’t encouraging.
He checked the tall, lanky man for a pulse.
He checked to see if Rowles was breathing.
Yikes. Brito put his hands in the appropriate position and began applying hard rhythmic compressions to Rowles’ chest.
“One Mississippi. Two Mississippi …”
Brito prefers this method of counting.
Strangely enough, he said, many CPR lifesavers prefer compressing to the beat of that classic disco ditty:
“Stayin’ alive. Stayin’ Alive. Ah. Ha. Ha. Ha. Stayin’ alive.”
True, you can’t knock the message. But being saved by the Bee Gees would be a difficult concept for someone with my rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities to live with.
Brito’s steady efforts began to pay off. Rowles took a gasping breath.
Brito continued, all the while holding a one-way conversation with a man who couldn’t hear a word.
“I was determined,” said Brito, adding that he told Rowles things like, “You’re gonna make it. You’re not gonna die. Come on. Come on.”
Though he had never met Janet Rowles, Brito said he thought about the man’s wife and even how she would get to the hospital to see her man. It was Brito’s way of making what he was doing very personal.
“He’s a lifesaver,” said Janet, who will be married to her husband 60 years come May. “I thank God he was where he was when it happened.”
One thought Brito didn’t share kept nibbling at his mind as he pushed and pushed.
Where are the paramedics?
I was told that it took about seven minutes for the experts to arrive, which is amazingly swift when you factor traffic and potholes into the equation.
Brito, understandably, was in another time zone.
“To me it felt like a day and a half,” he said with a nervous chuckle.
Elita Jones and Marge Shields are two of the tennis players who watched it all happen. Brito, they say, knew what he was doing and did it well.
When the paramedics took over, Brito gratefully stepped to the sidelines and marveled at their teamwork and precision.
Everyone watching spontaneously burst into applause when the professionals secured Rowles safely and started to leave.
The praise for Brito is well deserved, too.
Charles Alpers, Spokane Club CEO, calls him “an example of the extraordinary employees we look for.”
Brito is taking it in stride, mainly feeling thankful that his CPR class paid off.
One day he hopes to open his own training center where athletes and others can hone their performance.
He also dreams of broadcasting baseball games as a play-by-play announcer. Brito’s extensive baseball background along with his fluent English, gregarious personality and Spanish-interpreting skills would make that goal achievable, I believe.
Meanwhile, that sweet thing called life ticks on for Bob Rowles.
Though still weak, he is making steady improvement at a South Hill rehab center and hopes to return to the game he learned as a little kid at Comstock Park.
After some small talk, our conversation focused on that frightening Friday and how a young man named Luis Brito stepped up.
“Tell him thanks for saving my life,” Rowles asked.
Will do, Bob. Will do.