Regulars at Dodd Trail Park hope medical emergency will lead to defibrillator at the courts

It was shortly after 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the pickleball courts at Dodd Trail Park were packed.

All six courts were full, with other players patiently waiting their turn. In a testament to the sport’s exploding popularity — the USA Pickleball Association claims a 650 percent increase in participation from 2012-18 — the players crossed generational boundaries. A group of teenagers had one court. Others fit the 55-plus age demographic credited with bringing the sport into the mainstream. There are times when players need reservations to use the courts.

A group of friends from Lakeville are regulars at the Dodd Trail Park courts, and will play there until the snow flies. At that point, the game moves indoors to a local fitness center. The sport, a cross between tennis, table tennis and badminton, emphasizes hand-eye coordination and strategy, while requiring less running.

For the group, Dodd Trail Park checks all their pickleball boxes, with the possible exception of an automated external defibrillator. Because if somebody else suffers a cardiac arrest on the court, he might not be as fortunate as Keven Saunders.

On June 6, Saunders was stricken during the regular pickleball game. The main reason he’s alive to talk about it is the player closest to him when he collapsed was Joe Castle, a longtime friend who’s a former U.S. Navy corpsman. Calling on his emergency medical training, Castle administered CPR to get Saunders’ heart back in rhythm.

“The surgeon told me if Joe hadn’t been there, I’d be dead,” said Saunders, who had an operation to repair a defective heart valve June 11.

“I went to get a ball that had gone onto another court, and then I started feeling dizzy and really nauseous. I told Joe I thought I needed to sit down. And that’s the last thing I remember.”

Saunders’ friends filled in the blanks for him: Castle performed CPR for about five minutes. Another of the Dodd Trail Park regulars, Judd Schetnan, called 911. Mark Springer, the fourth player on the court that day, called Saunders' wife.

By the time Saunders was loaded into an ambulance, he had stabilized. Now, Saunders is walking as much as 3 miles at a time, has resumed working from home for Wells Fargo and expects to rejoin the pickleball duels in a few months.

By that time, Castle said he hopes an AED will be installed at the courts. He considers it a matter a time before a similar incident occurs.

“Keven is only 47. Aside from the bad aortic valve, he was in perfect health,” said Castle, who was assigned to the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton during his time as a Navy corpsman. “If this could happen to him, it could happen to somebody else. It’s a time bomb.”

Castle asked the city of Lakeville about installing an AED at the courts, and it’s being studied. It’s not in the budget, so Parks and Recreation Director John Hennen said the city is looking into funding sources, or a donation. Hennen said the estimated cost of a refurbished AED is about $900.

After purchasing an AED, the next step would be securing it from theft or vandalism, Hennen said.

An AED was used to resuscitate Rosemount High School teacher and girls basketball coach Chris Orr, who suffered a heart attack while working at the school in March 2017. A stent was installed to open an artery that was almost blocked, and Orr ran a 4-mile road race less than four months after the heart attack. Without the AED and co-workers who could administer first aid, Orr said he probably would not have survived.

Castle checked his friend’s pulse once Saunders told him he felt ill. Within seconds there was no pulse, and no breathing. Castle started CPR and kept at it for about three minutes.

“I was trained in ACLS (advanced cardiac life support) and feel very fortunate that I was there with him. We all do,” Castle said.

It will be a while longer before Saunders’ life returns to normal. He needed open-heart surgery — the problem was traced to two valves that had been fused since birth — and his chest remains sore from the operation.

“I’ve known for a long time I had a heart murmur, but it’s never been a problem,” Saunders said. “I didn’t know about the valve problem.”

Contact sports are out post-surgery, but Saunders said he thought he could be back playing pickleball in three or four months. Schetnan said Tuesday afternoon he thought that might be rushing it a little, before adding:

“He does have a game to finish with us.”

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