Players, spectators help Angelo Costanza after
suffering heart attack on the field
By Lou Fancher
In a game of winners and losers -- specifically, a men's softball game on June 30 -- a really big play didn't save the game for either team. It saved a life.
It was only the second inning at Orinda's Wilder Fields and The Wrecking Crew was down by six or seven runs when the opposing President's Club's Angelo Costanza stepped up to the plate. The 66-year old Martinez resident had been playing in the adult league since 1977, when he lived in Moraga and was a catcher for the Moraga Rotary Ballers.
Costanza smacked a grounder and ran toward first base, but didn't get there.
"He just collapsed," Tim Cecchin recalled in an interview. "I thought, Did he hurt his leg? Get tired? After a few seconds, we realized there was no movement."
Out in center field, Jonathan Svahn, a general surgeon at Kaiser Permanente's Oakland Medical Center, thought Costanza had tripped ... until people started shouting, "Call 911!"
By then, Cecchin had scrambled out of the dugout and, seeing some movement, felt for his teammate's pulse.
"I had trouble feeling a (wrist) pulse. Checking his neck was impossible because he was making a snoring noise, trying to breathe," the Orinda resident remembered.
Svahn checked Costanza's femoral artery ("That was something I learned that day," Cecchin said). Finding no pulse, Svahn issued instructions to a teammate, Barry Williams, and to Cecchin. The three players began CPR. Cecchin recalls a nurse who appeared like an angel from nowhere. She steadied Costanza's neck and gave advice.
The paramedics arrived in about 15 minutes, Costanza still unconscious. They brought out the defibrillator and, right there on the field, worked to shock Costanza's heart back into a working rhythm.
"The shock lets the heart arrhythmia (irregular rhythm) stop, then start and beat in a coordinated fashion," Svahn explained. "Later, we found out his heart stopped again in the ambulance and in the ER."
The game, meanwhile, was over. Cecchin said both teams stayed on the field for a while, trying to comfort each other with talk of their "being on him quickly" and thinking good thoughts. Several players followed the ambulance to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek.
At the hospital, doctors discovered Costanza's cardiac arrest had been caused by an artery that was nearly 100 percent blocked. During the surgery to clear the artery and insert a stent, he aspirated fluid into his lungs. After eight days in the hospital, still dependent on oxygen and blood-thinning medicine, Costanza was discharged. In the subsequent weeks, he slowly weaned himself off of the 60-foot tether connecting him to a machine helping him to breathe -- but not before he rolled his portable oxygen supply to a Martinez Rotary breakfast (just a week out of the hospital) to make up for a meeting he missed that would have ruined his 100 percent attendance record.
Remarkably, the day that literally changed his life's path is a total blank in his mind.
"I can't recall a thing about that day, other than going to the chiropractor for a sore neck because I wanted to be in super shape for the game," Costanza recalled. "I only remember waking up in the hospital, seeing my wife and saying, 'What's going on?' "
It is now nearly four months after the incident and it's impossible to imagine the avid golfer, softball player, father, husband, Rotarian and hard-driving personal injury attorney sitting down, let alone face down in the dirt.
"I love this machine," he says, jumping up to demonstrate the elliptical machine hospital staff have him working on. Next, it's the treadmill, rowing machine, a golf swing he's not satisfied with: "I'm stretching, too -- it's like I'm in midseason softball shape."
But he didn't return to the field before the season ended, because blood thinners don't allow for any physical contact. For a man who's been leadoff hitter for most of his 28 years playing ball, it would be tough, if he weren't so grateful.
"I have a lot of faith. I'm so blessed that all of those people were there. They saved me right there on the field and again, in the ambulance." Costanza says.
His wife, Suzann Angelus, and adult son, Mitch Costanza, have helped him during his recovery, keeping him on track with appointments and away from desserts. "I wouldn't be here without them," he says.
Svahn says he's never saved a life outside of the hospital. Performing CPR on the field with average guys made him realize how simple it is to learn and that there might be lives saved, if more people knew CPR.
Cecchin is grateful to Mark DeWeese, a Moraga-Orinda Fire Department firefighter who five years ago roped him and several buddies into joining a CPR refresher course. The night of June 30, leaving the field not knowing if Costanza had died or if they'd done something amazing and saved him, Cecchin called DeWeese, asking him to check up on Costanza. Learning his teammate was going to be OK, Cecchin thanked DeWeese for helping him to save a life, and not just a game.