Few knew how serious Craig Cunningham’s condition was after collapsing on the ice on Nov. 19 in Tucson, Ariz. or how it took 85-minutes of aggressive CPR and a special state-of-the-art procedure to save the Trail native’s life.
Of the few that did, not many expected him to recover. But Cunningham defied the odds, and the captain of the Tucson Roadrunners of the American Hockey League will likely be released from hospital before Christmas, and spoke at his first news conference since the incident on Wednesday.
“I don’t remember anything from that whole day,” Cunningham said at a press conference at Banner University Medical Centre in Tucson. “The last thing I remember is playing hockey the weekend before.”
The 26-year-old former Beaver Valley Nitehawk has been recovering at the Banner University Medical Centre after a dramatic rescue by a series of quick-thinking medical experts, including top cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Zain Khalpey.
Cunningham collapsed just before the face-off in full cardiac arrest. Team trainers, medics and local firefighters — on ice by chance to perform the national anthem as part of a Scottish bagpipe and drum band — worked to save him.
“They were quite amazing in terms of how fast everything happened,” said Khalpey, who praised the firefighters and nurses who kept administering effective CPR for so long.
According to a release from Banner University Medical Centre, Cunningham suffered ventricular fibrillation, a heart rhythm problem that occurs when the heart beats with rapid, erratic electrical impulses. This causes pumping chambers in the heart (the ventricles) to quiver uselessly, instead of pumping blood.
“At St. Mary’s, the emergency department team quickly determined that he needed to be transported to Banner -University Medical Centre where he could receive advanced life-saving therapy using ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) … A pump that circulates blood through a circuit of tubing supporting heart function and through an “oxygenator” which functions as an artificial lung.”
When Khalpey got to the hospital he had to explain to Cunningham’s mother the emergency procedure. The surgeon cut a hole through Cunningham’s chest, then his heart, and jammed a tube in to assist the heart.
“His heart has full recovery,” Khalpey said at the press conference. He described the experience of saving Cunningham as a “humbling privilege.”
It’s unclear why this happened to Cunningham, but it is unlikely he will play hockey at the level he did before the collapse. For now, coming to grips with his condition and the mental trauma is all part of the healing process.
“Some days are good, some days are bad,” Cunningham said. “It’s more for me right now, kind of mental. I’ve been here so long, I look at the roof every day, and it’s the same roof. Nurses have been good taking me outside, and it’s made a huge difference. But it’s been a pretty big grind being in the same spot the whole time.”
Cunningham begins rehabilitation in Arizona and true to form is up for the challenge. When Doctors warned him of the difficulties of recovery, the former Vancouver Giant replied in earnest, “Bring it on!”
Craig and his brothers Ryan and Mitchel lost their father to a car accident when they were between the ages of four and seven, leaving their mother Heather the difficult task of raising three young sons on her own.
“She’s been the backbone of our whole family. Nothing has changed. She’s been here for me. It means a lot. She was down here watching me since it happened and she’s been here from day one.”
“She’s still there for me,” said Cunningham.
As for Heather, from the dark days of November, the holiday season has brought hope and a very special gift.
“The only reason my son is here today is their refusal to give up in a seemingly hopeless situation. These people are nothing short of a gift to mankind,” she said at the press conference. “I will remember the gift they have given me every time I look at my son.”