James Martek embraces Melissa Hudecki, who saved his life when he collapsed while refereeing a basketball game.
BUFFALO, NY - Last Friday Melissa Hudecki, a certified athletic trainer who works for Catholic Health's AthletiCare Program, found herself assigned to a basketball game at Mt. Mercy Academy, an all girls high school in South Buffalo.
Hudecki took her customary place behind a team bench, on the alert for the usual maladies, which can befall athletes.
"If you see someone roll their ankle, or they're coming off the court holding their arm, you go and you talk to them you see what's going on," she said.
Midway through the game, she noticed referee James Martek, 54, running up the court as he had done countless times throughout the contest. Then she saw him suddenly collapse.
No Time To Spare:
Hudecki, who has taught Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) for 14 years (but only had to use it on one prior occasion) bounded from her post, quickly realizing that what looked like an already serious situation was even graver.
"As I crossed the court, his (Martek's) partner referee who was working with him, said to me, 'he had a heart attack before', and then he said to me that he had also had bypass surgery," Hudecki recalled for WGRZ-TV, while standing at the spot on the court where Martek went down.
She immediately instructed onlookers to call 9-1-1, and then called for someone to bring her the school's automated external defibrillator, which is stored in a corridor just outside the doors to the gymnasium.
Setting to work, she remembered, "I was thinking I'm going to do what I'm trained to do, and that Jim's a good guy and I just need him to pull through this."
Six days later, and one block away from the school at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo, Martek, who lives in Lancaster, was due to be discharged after having undergone treatment which involved the surgical installation of a defibrillating device in his body.
But before he left, hospital administrators arranged for an emotional reunion between the two.
Rising from his wheelchair to embrace Hudecki, Martek told her "Thank you..." to which she replied, "It's so good to see you up and about." "You know what, if it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be here," Martek told her.
Dr. Rob Wall, the cardiologist who treated Martek, confirmed as much.
"The death rate associated with what Mr. Martek had is very high, only less than five-percent of the people live," Wall told Two On Your Side, in describing Ventricular tachycardia (VT), a rapid heartbeat that starts in the ventricles, and which almost killed Martek.
This is especially true in victims to whom aid is not rendered immediately, according to Wall, who credited not only Hudecki but also the quick actions of Buffalo firefighters who were on the scene within minutes.
Martek has no memory of the incident, and said the last thing he remembers before waking up in the hospital was dressing for the game.
It also turns out that he and Hudecki had crossed paths before.
"I remember Melissa from when she was a St. Joseph's (Collegiate Institute) scorekeeper for lacrosse, because I also officiate lacrosse" Turning toward Hudecki he said, "So here it is ten years later, and when I heard it was you (who came to his aid) I said, 'she's my angel of mercy',".
You Never Know:
Looking at Martek, who is fit, trim, and relatively young, one might not suspect he'd be a candidate for a heart attack.
Then again, one can't judge a book by its cover, and his story is rife with chapters of foreboding.
"I had a bypass 12 years ago...and as for the genetic history of my family, all my brothers and sisters have had some kind of heart problem," he confirmed.
"Unfortunately Mr. Martek has an electrical instability of the heart itself, and it's because he (also) has blocked arteries, it lead him to have this fast (nearly) fatal rhythm," said Dr. Wall.
Now, with a new lease on his life, Martek has decided to hang up his referee's shirt,
"I've been married thirty years and my wife has sacrificed during the last 20 because I would be gone four or five days a week (refereeing sports)," he said. "I think it's time that I reassess what I do and it's time I spend more time with my family because this makes me think...Friday could have been my last day with her and I'd like to have another 30 years with her so , yes, more than likely that was the last game I will ever ref."
However, as long as one has a life, it remains full of opportunities.
Why Not Join Him?
In this time of year, when perhaps several of us have made resolutions (and by now know whether we'll keep to them) Martek, who turns 55 in three weeks, has a new one himself.
He has vowed that this will be the year that he learns CPR.
And, he's hoping that Hudecki will teach him.
"It's a life skill everyone should have from the age when they can babysit," she said. "Knowing that he's going to learn how to do CPR will maybe encourage other people to say, 'you know what? Maybe this is something I really should do as well.'"
Follow this link to the American Red Cross, which offers courses in CPR.
Click on the video player to watch our story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Norm Fisher. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveMcKinley2