McGovern: McGonigle ‘lucky’ to have his new lifeBy Mike McGovern, Reading Eagle
The week began with a lot going on and even more to look forward to.
Harry and Dianne McGonigle’s days were spent preparing to move “just across town.”
As if the short distance could somehow minimize the requisite stress and chaos.
Their reward for huffing and puffing, for packing and carting and organizing boxes was kicking back, relaxing and watching the Summer Olympics, which began their first full week that Monday night, Aug. 8. “It’s something we always enjoy,” Harry said. But the Games were only part of the fun.
Thursday, Dianne was planning to board a Bieber Bus, meet her son in Brooklyn and enjoy a “bucket list” trip to see Barbra Streisand in concert at Barclays Center.
Four days later, Harry would convene preseason practice for his 20th season as girls tennis coach – and 46th overall – at Kutztown High School. Educated guess: Harry, who will turn 71 in November, was every bit as enthusiastic and excited for tennis season No. 46 as Dianne was for Streisand concert No. 1.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a coach more devoted to or passionate about his sport. But all of a sudden, things changed, radically, and the anticipation turned to dread. John Lennon wrote, “Life happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Well, life happened that night, and the plans became moot. Dianne never made it to Brooklyn Thursday, because Harry barely made it to Tuesday.
It was just after 8. Harry McGonigle was in an easy chair, head back, his legs stretched out on an ottoman. Dianne was on the sofa, a few feet away. “I heard this sound coming from him,” Dianne said. “To me it sounded like a snore, or a little louder. I looked over at him and said, ‘Uh, you’re missing this; don’t sleep now,’ in a kind of funny, joking way. And I got no response.
“So I came over to him. He was slumped in the chair, which isn’t unusual when he falls asleep. His mouth was open; but so were his eyes, and I said, ‘Oh, you’re awake.’
“So I started talking to him, but got no response. Nothing.”
“Panicked,” she called 9-1-1 and, struggling to keep the cellphone tucked between her ear and her shoulder, started doing CPR, which was part of her training, having spent 22 years as a preschool teacher.
Officer Charles Lawson of the Kutztown Police Department was on the scene and in the house in less than five minutes. His partner, Jake Auman, arrived another minute or two later, followed by EMTs from the Kutztown Area Transport Service and members of the Kutztown fire department. Lawson and Auman transferred Harry from the chair to the floor. He had no pulse and no heartbeat.
They hooked him up to an automated external defibrillator (AED), and Lawson and Auman alternated doing chest compressions. Meanwhile, the EMTs started him on IVs and placed him on a heart monitor.
“We were all working as one group at the same time,” Lawson said. “It was a big team effort – us, the EMS and the Kutztown fire department.” The AED shocked his heart once, assessed his vital signs and instructed chest compressions to continue.
“We wound up getting a pulse,” Lawson said.
The entire process – from Dianne’s 9-1-1 call to Harry being rushed to Penn State Health St. Joseph – took 25 minutes, according to Lawson. To this day, Harry and Dianne wonder, What if?
What if help had arrived a few minutes later, or Dianne had been in the kitchen instead of the family room, or her phone had not been within arm’s reach?
The answer is sobering.
“Oh, he’s very, very lucky extremely lucky,” said Dr. Kirk McMurtry, who did bypass surgery and a valve repair on McGonigle in March. “The majority of people who die from heart attacks die from this kind of an arrhythmia.
“So he’s very, very lucky to have come out of this as well as he did, but that’s thanks to the heroic efforts of his wife, the police officers and the rest of the people on the scene so quickly. They certainly made a difference in his life.”
The quality of which wasn’t determined for several days.
When Harry McGonigle arrived at the hospital, he was put into a medically induced coma.
According to McMurtry, the intravenous cooling that takes place as a result of the coma “helps protect the brain a little more while recovering.” Over the next two days, Dianne tried to process what happened and what might happen.
Neither was pleasant.
“I was shocked, because I (originally) thought, ‘Well, his heart’s beating; he’ll be OK,’ ” she said. But the situation was potentially far more dire.
“He could’ve been in a vegetative state; that would’ve been the worst-case scenario,” McMurtry said. “There also could’ve been isolated focal neurological deficits: He can’t walk; he can’t use one side; he can’t use his left arm, can’t use his right arm. There could’ve been speech derangements, loss of sight, those kind of things.”
Dianne was told that if he didn’t come out of the coma by Monday – six days down the road – she could face some “tough decisions.” “That’s when reality set in,” she said.
Dianne, and Harry’s son, sisters and brother-in-law continued to talk to him while he was in the coma, but there was no sign that he heard them; not until Wednesday evening, the end of the second day, when he “blinked a little.”
The next morning, as Dianne approached the ICU, she was greeted by smiles, thumbs-ups and fist pumps from the assembled doctors and nurses. Not only was Harry awake, but miraculously, he emerged from the ordeal “pretty much unscathed,” according to McMurtry.
Friday, he underwent surgery to have a combination pacemaker-defibrillator implanted; Sunday he was discharged – so appreciative and thankful for everything.
Except one of his doctors’ orders.
Harry McGonigle has coached nearly 1,000 tennis matches since his first season as Kutztown boys coach in 1971. His teams won about 70 percent of those matches, and during one six-year stretch, his boys teams won them all, reeling off 104 consecutive league victories.
McGonigle had an exit strategy – stepping down after the boys season in 2017 – but it was altered that Sunday morning.
“As I was leaving,” McGonigle said, “three doctors told me, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re not coaching anymore.’ ” His 46-year career ended with one sentence.
“It was tough,” he said. “I wasn’t happy about it, because I thought I could still do it. Plus, I wanted to go out on my own terms.” But there was no debate, no trying to plead his case or strike a deal.
Harry McGonigle was a former tennis coach, with a new life – literally – ahead of him.
“There’s so much more to life than coaching tennis,” said McGonigle, who retired as a high school social studies teacher in 2007. “I value each day so much more than I did. I think, ‘God, I’m really lucky I’m here.’
“One of the doctors asked if I had feelings of suicide or depression. I said: ‘What, are you nuts?’
“We’ve got grandkids; we want to travel. We’re going to do some really neat things.
“It’s nice to have something to look forward to, because if you don’t, that’s when you fall into depression or consider suicide. You lose the will to live. But my will to live is off the charts.”
Time to add to that bucket list.
Mike McGovern | Assistant sports editor
Mike McGovern is the assistant sports editor for the Reading Eagle.
Phone: 610-371-5068 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org