“The last thing I remember is taping up my buddy, Buck,” St. Goddard said from his Billings Clinic hospital bed Wednesday.
When St. Goddard collapsed, EMTs present at the event in case of injury strapped him to a backboard and rushed him into a waiting ambulance. As his girlfriend, Tiffany Sinclair, stepped into the ambulance to ride with him, the EMTs told her to get out. St. Goddard’s heart had stopped.
“I kept wanting to touch him and be in there,” Sinclair said through tears as she recalled watching the EMTs work. “It seemed like it took forever. I was just begging him to come back. He couldn’t leave.”
The healthy young athlete had suffered sudden cardiac arrest. It’s not a heart attack, which is more or less a cardiac plumbing problem. Cardiac arrest is caused by an electrical disturbance in the heart.
According to the American Heart Association, sudden cardiac arrest is a leading cause of death among adults over the age of 40 in the United States and other countries. In the United States alone, roughly 350,000 people die every year from the affliction. Half of men and 60 percent of women who suffer sudden cardiac arrest die when it strikes.
To prevent trauma to St. Goddard’s brain, doctors at Billings Clinic used drugs to induce a 24-hour coma. The idea is to reduce blood flow to sections of the brain damaged when St. Goddard quit breathing, allowing time for them to heal and any swelling to subside.
Without oxygen, brain cells die. The longer the brain goes without oxygen, the worse the trauma to the brain. Most patients who go without oxygen to their brains for 10 minutes never regain consciousness, according to the American Medical Association.
“The scary part was how much oxygen he lost to the brain,” said St. Goddard’s father, Jay. “The machines were running him for a while.”
“It’s probably the fastest drive I’ve ever made to Billings,” Jay said.
“I was praying for the deer to be out of the way,” LeAnn said. “It was the longest ride of my life.”
Seeing her son hooked up to machines and immobile, LeAnn turned to her Catholic faith for support. She anointed the machines and prayed on every side of the bed. When she put St. Goddard’s cross in his pocket, he moved, giving her hope.
“I knew in my heart and my prayers that he would be back,” she said tearfully.
On Sunday morning, the coma-inducing drugs were halted and St. Goddard awoke, unsure where he was or what had happened.
“I didn’t know if I was in heaven or hell,” he joked.
By then, doctors had narrowed in on the diagnosis of sudden cardiac arrest. Now it was up to St. Goddard and his family to decide whether to proceed with surgery to install an implantable cardioverter defibrillator. The battery-operated device is placed in the chest with wires that run through a vein to the heart, somewhat like a pacemaker. When the heartbeat is irregular, the device sends an electrical shock to the heart.
St. Goddard worried that the device might make it difficult or impossible for him to continue bareback riding and team roping.
“He told the sports medicine doctor that if he was going to die, he wanted to do it while rodeoing,” LeAnn said.
After watching a video about the heart device, St. Goddard said he couldn’t relate to the older people shown and didn’t want to proceed. He later agreed, and the surgery was performed Tuesday.
His right arm has to stay immobile for four weeks while the surgical scars heal, but St. Goddard said he plans to resume riding and roping as soon as possible after that.
“Oh, no,” he said when asked if the device and his near-death experience will change his life.
But he said the experience had taught him “just how important life is and how easy it can be taken away from you.”
It taught Sinclair, his girlfriend, to “appreciate everything in your life and everyone in your life.”
“You never know when you’re going to see someone for the last time in your life,” she said.
St. Goddard was poker-faced during most of a hospital room conversation about his ordeal. But when he talked about his grandparents’ influence on his religious beliefs, he choked up.
“My grandpa, to tell you the truth, I seen him during all of this,” St. Goddard said. “I remember my grandma saying, ‘If you’re ever in trouble, pray.’”
“It looked … words can’t explain what I seen when I was in that coma, I guess. This was a roller-coaster ride till I got better.”
St. Goddard said he had a dream the night before the rodeo in which he saw his deceased grandfather, Archie.
Jay is thankful that his son’s ailment came to light when so many skilled people were close enough to help. He and LeAnn praised their extended rodeo families, ambulance workers, doctors and friends and relatives who prayed for their son.
“To put it shortly, a bad thing happened at the right place,” Jay said. “Somebody was certainly watching over him.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle, what happened here.”