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Wildcat sophomore Colby Clay's brush with death on the pitch saved by heroic teammates

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview sophomore Colby Clay (middle) was saved by teammates Ben Balzer (left) and Ben Wu (right) after being hit in the chest with a lacrosse ball that caused Commotio cordis last month.

Initially, Ben Balzer and Ben Wu believed Colby Clay was clowning around with them.

It was in the middle of Westview's boys' lacrosse practice on May 23, during a six-on-six drill when a teammate's shot hit Clay in the chest just below his pads, sending the sophomore Wildcat stumbling forward on the artificial turf.

Balzer and Wu thought Clay was acting as he grabbed his upper body and staggered, trying to hold himself upright — a buddy acting wounded and pulling a prank on his comrades. In lacrosse, Wu says players are hit all the time by rubber bullets traveling at speeds upwards of 90 miles an hour. This was no different, or so it appeared.

But as Clay collapsed face-first, it was clear something had gone horribly wrong.

When the Wildcats flipped Clay on his back and saw the sophomore's eyes roll in the back of his head, Wu and Balzer assessed the scene and sprang into action. Wu, a recently graduated senior, was in Westview's Health Career Pathways program and was a lifeguard for four years. Wu realized Clay had suffered commotio cordis — a sometimes-lethal disruption of heart rhythm caused by a blow —and began doing compression-only CPR while Blazer raced over to his phone and dialed 911.

Athletic trainer Tina Garcia found the AED machine and carried it to Clay's side as Wu continued compressions, knowing Clay's heart still wasn't pumping. Clay was shocked three times and treated by the arriving emergency medical technicians who took him to Legacy Emanuel Hospital after his breathing and heartbeat came back.

Clay was placed in a medically induced coma that night, yet recovered quickly enough to be taken off the support when he awoke.

Just 16 years old with a promising lacrosse career ahead of him and so much life to live, Clay is healthy, on his feet and thankful to his teammates and coaches who heroically helped bring their teammate back from the brink of the harrowing ordeal.

"It couldn't have gone any more perfect for how bad the situation was," Balzer said. "Every single person on the field did something, nobody was freaking out, everybody was calm. I think that comes from us being so close as a team. Everyone cares for each other and will do whatever they can."

Commotio cordis, according to the Korey Stringer Institute, is an often lethal disruption of heart rhythm that occurs as a result of a blow to the area directly over the heart (the precordial region), at a critical time during the cycle of a heartbeat causing cardiac arrest. It's an uncommon occurrence. In 10 years of lacrosse, Balzer said he'd never heard of such a case anywhere, but it's one that arises in baseball, hockey and lacrosse. According to the institute, these projectiles can strike the athletes in the middle of the chest with a low impact but enough to cause the heart to enter arrhythmia. The survival rate for such a case, according to the institute, is rare as the actual occurrence.

Wu said there's a one-in-200-million chance commotio cordis can transpire. But Wu immediately gauged what had gone on thanks to the countless repetitions from his Pathways program and extensive training. Because of the program, Wu said he'd seen and experienced different levels of trauma as an observer before, on medical rounds at various hospitals. In a way, he'd built up an emotional tolerance to distress. Naturally, the cool-headed Wu tended to his fallen teammate.

"It was all in the moment, I didn't think about it at all," Wu said. "I was shocked, but I knew what to do, I knew what I had to do. It's something you practice."

Wu is an aspiring physician who is going to Oregon State to study bio-med and hopefully advance to the Oregon Health & Science University one day. His goal is to work at the Legacy Emanuel Trauma Ward, the same place Clay was sent to when the incident transpired.

Clay said the strike didn't hurt and he has no memory of anything after the hit except for waking up in the hospital. Clay feels like he has a new lease on life and a renewed outlook on what's to come.

"When I woke up my, mom told me I should buy a lottery ticket," Clay said with a smile. "If I beat death once, then I must be here for a reason."

The blow did little to dent his confidence on the lacrosse pitch. Though Clay is currently on a heart monitor and only doing light physical activity, he said he plans on getting back on the field as soon as he's medically cleared by his doctors. Clay, a second-team all-Metro selection, said his cardinal goal is to play collegiate lacrosse.

"This injury isn't going to stop me from trying to achieve that," Clay said. "I'm just going to keep on going for it. This hasn't scared me at all. I'm going to get right back out there and play."

Balzer described Clay as the ultimate team player, who's a hard-working, smart defender who will do whatever he can to help the team win. Oftentimes, Wu said, Clay was the one saving Westview with a game-changing clear or snuffing out the opposing team's best player with a clean, tough check.

"(Clay) could definitely play Division One, no doubt," Wu said. "I don't think I've ever seen somebody so good at such a young age. He plays at the level of a senior. He has that kind of skill level, even though he doesn't have as much experience. I know he's going to grow and keep getting better."

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