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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports >  High school sports

Eli Emerson flourishing after cardiac arrest

Eli Emerson, a basketball player at Central Valley, is grateful to be alive after suffering a cardiac arrest in summer 2013. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Eli Emerson, a basketball player at Central Valley, is grateful to be alive after suffering a cardiac arrest in summer 2013. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Eli Emerson has much to be grateful for.

Grateful that he’s alive.

Grateful that he was adopted by loving parents.

Grateful that he met his birth parents and siblings last summer.

And grateful to be playing basketball when he was told he’d never play again.

As a freshman, Emerson started on the Central Valley junior varsity basketball team, averaging 10 points per game. He had high hopes of earning a varsity uniform the next winter.

“We were going to have a lot of seniors. I just wanted to make the team even if it meant I’d be swing player (between JV and varsity),” Emerson said.

So the summer before his sophomore year, Emerson wanted to push himself to improve when the club season rolled around.

He rode over to a tournament in Bellevue with some of his teammates on the Eastern Washington Elite 15. The first game was less than three minutes old when he suddenly lost consciousness, falling face first to the floor.

Emerson had suffered cardiac arrest.

“We had been running hard up and down the court for a minute or so,” Emerson remembered. “I was jogging to the other end of the floor (when it happened).”

Technically, Emerson was dead.

“My heart stopped,” he said.

Fortunately, Blaze Burnham, the father of one of Emerson’s teammates, was in the bleachers. The athletic director at Liberty, Burnham is also a nurse practitioner.

“The ball was deflected out of bounds and as I panned back I saw Eli on the floor,” said Burnham, who worked for 16 years in the emergency room at Whitman Hospital in Colfax. “I don’t have a clue why but I remember thinking in the moment (about) Hank Gathers.”

It was 25 years ago last March that Gathers, a standout player at Loyola Marymount University, fell to the court in a West Coast Conference semifinal game. Gathers died of cardiac arrest.

“I jumped over somebody in front of me in the crowd and got down there as fast as I could,” Burnham said. “I won’t go into the graphic details but it was a scary situation.”

Burnham’s training, though, kicked in.

“In that situation you just have to listen to your gut because things are happening so fast,” Burnham said.

He checked for a pulse and didn’t find one.

As they awaited the arrival of paramedics, Burnham reached back and hit Emerson in the chest with his fist as hard as he could.

Then he started chest compressions.

“I did about 30,” he said. “It seemed like it took a century. Then all of a sudden Eli let out a gasp and took a deep breath.”

Burnham, who is seemingly twice Emerson’s size, couldn’t believe what happened next.

“He sits up and then he stands up and he seemed to have the strength of an elephant,” Burnham said. “He started coming to and he was really scared. I remember saying ‘praise God’ in my thoughts.”

Emerson was told later that he was running around saying ‘Jesus help me, Jesus help me.’

“There was an angel in that gym,” Burnham said, deflecting credit as a hero.

Emerson, though, is quick to credit Burnham for saving his life.

“Even though he didn’t have the materials to properly resuscitate me, he did what he had to do to bring me back – even if it was a touch barbaric,” Emerson said.

Post Falls standout Max McCullough was a teammate of Emerson that summer. He said the incident impacted the team, which didn’t finish the game but returned to the tournament the next day.

“We didn’t know what to think,” McCullough said. “We were standing on the side watching, waiting for him to get up. Then a parent took us outside. We played for Eli the rest of the summer.”

Emerson appeared fine to the paramedics when they arrived, but Burnham insisted they take him to the hospital. Burnham rode along because Emerson’s parents hadn’t planned to drive over to the tournament until the next day.

Burnham estimated that Emerson’s heart had stopped for close to 75 seconds.

Emerson was sent home with a diagnosis of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. It is a leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes.

“The walls in my heart were too thick and the blood couldn’t run smoothly through it,” Emerson said.

Doctors told Emerson he’d never be able to play sports again. He has a pacemaker, with wires inserted to his heart, located in the upper left part of his chest.

Emerson didn’t accept the doctors’ opinion about his basketball career.

“They said I couldn’t play competitive basketball again unless my heart walls shrunk,” Emerson said.

The heart walls did shrink.

“I chalk it up to a miracle and lots of prayer,” Emerson said.

Still, he had to sit out his sophomore season. But he came up with a plan with his doctor. He could test things out by trying track.

So that spring, Emerson did sprint races and the long jump.

“Everything went fine,” he said.

So he was given a release to try basketball in the summer.

“No problems at all,” he said.

The pacemaker is like a mini computer, keeping his heart in a steady rhythm. If the heart beats too fast he’ll get a shock that is 40 more times powerful than a taser. If it beats too slow he’ll get a shock.

Emerson hasn’t been shocked yet.

He wears an undershirt with a pocket and makeshift pad cuffed around the defibulator so it won’t get hit under his jersey top.

Emerson “feels fortunate to be alive.”

“I get tearful at times watching him out there,” said Rick Sloan, the CV basketball coach. “Just seeing him out there is very joyful.”

Rod and Jen Emerson adopted Eli about two weeks after his birth in Houston, Texas. He is the oldest of four. Two other siblings also were adopted.

His oldest birth sibling found Eli on Instagram nine months ago. They began a conversation that led to him visiting his birth parents, now divorced, and extended family in Houston last summer.

“I was the youngest of seven,” Eli said. “My mom said she was really sick when I was born and she had the other kids and didn’t know what to do with me. She told me she’d rather have me adopted than grow up in a place where I wouldn’t be able to thrive.

“It was fun to meet them. It was sort of closure.”

Emerson said some of his biological family plans to attend graduation this spring.

He is in the last month of competitive basketball. He plans to attend Grand Canyon University in Phoenix and pursue a degree in economics and finance.

“I want to be a financial advisor and help people with their finances,” Emerson said.

A starter a year ago, Emerson has been CV’s sixth man this season. He had been in a shooting funk but appears to have worked through it.

Emerson scored a career-high 21 points last Friday, making 8 of 9 shots, including 4 of 5 from 3-point range, as the Bears knocked off Lewis and Clark.

“I’ve been going to practice 30 minutes early to work on my shot,” he said.

“We’re starting to see the old Eli again,” Sloan said. “Even last year, when he wasn’t shooting well, he found other ways to contribute. He led us in taking charges. He’s fearless and one of our top defenders.”

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