The Saint John’s University football team’s come-from-behind win over Trinity (Texas) in the season-opener on Sept. 2 thrilled Johnnie fans.
But SJU players weren’t the only ones victorious that day at Clemens Stadium.
Bill Patefield, a Johnnie ticket holder for almost three decades who retired in 2014 after a long career in SJU’s business office, achieved a major triumph simply by walking through the gates.
That’s because the last time Patefield, 75, had been there – for SJU’s 49-0 NCAA Division III first-round playoff win over Northwestern (Minnesota) on Nov. 19 of last year – he collapsed and nearly died after suffering a cardiac event.
“I remember coming back to my seat after halftime,” he said. “I sit in front of the VanErps (Tom and Janelle, parents of wide receivers Nick and Brady VanErp) and the Johnnies had just scored. I recall turning around and giving (Tom) a high-five. Then I don’t remember anything else for almost the next two weeks.”
A number of people quickly came to Patefield’s aid after his collapse, starting with Tom VanErp, who has long taught CPR. Dr. Nathan Brever, a former SJU football player and now one of the team’s physicians, rushed up from the sideline. Brever also happens to be Patefield’s personal physician.
Patricia Dumonceaux, a registered nurse and the wife of SJU assistant coach Damien Dumonceaux, arrived right away, and others were also there to provide aid. Saint John’s University Life Safety Services, the Saint John’s EMT squad, the Saint John’s Fire Department and the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department were quickly on the scene as well – tending to Patefield while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
But it was soon clear his situation was dire enough that he needed to be airlifted to the St. Cloud Hospital. Football traffic was re-routed so the ambulance could take Patefield to the four-way stop in front of Warner Palaestra and a North Memorial helicopter landed to pick him up.
For their efforts that day, Saint John’s Life Safety, the Saint John’s EMTs and the Saint John’s Fire Department are scheduled to receive a Public Safety Team of the Year Award from the Greater St. Cloud Public Safety Foundation at its second annual First Responder Appreciation Event on Friday (Oct. 6) in Waite Park.
“Helping someone in cardiac arrest and landing a helicopter on campus is not an everyday occurrence,” Saint John’s Life Safety Director Shawn Vierzba wrote in his nomination letter. “Doing it during a busy football game on a cold November afternoon made it even more challenging. But our Life Safety Officers, student EMTs and campus firefighters were up to the challenge.
“They excelled under tremendous pressure."
But even with everyone’s best efforts, the situation remained critical.
“They told me later that my heart had stopped three times,” Patefield said.
He was in and out of consciousness for much of the next two weeks and suffered another cardiac event the following Tuesday in the hospital. That was when his doctors decided he needed to undergo bypass surgery.
“Part of the worry was how much oxygen I’d lost and if, when I woke up, I’d have all the faculties I’d had before,” Patefield said. “Apparently, there was a day in there when my family said they talked to me and I was joking around a little. But I have no recollection of anything until two weeks later.
“That’s when I finally realized what had happened.”
Road to recovery
Patefield remained in the hospital for 27 days. Months of arduous rehabilitation followed, including 34 sessions of cardiac rehab. He struggled with his balance at first and needed a walker to move around his house.
He began suffering from drop foot (a condition in which a person has difficulty lifting the front of their foot) in both feet, requiring the use of braces. And there was nerve damage in an arm as well.
“I had to go into St. Cloud four days a week or more for cardiac rehab,” said Patefield, who lives just west of Avon. “Three days a week at the hospital and one or sometimes two days at the (CentraCare) Plaza (in Sartell).
“Just one example of so many to show the ways in which people helped out: My wife Karen doesn’t drive and we wondered how we’d get me to all of these appointments,” he continued. “Our friend Linda Borgerding said she’d talk to the Avon Pickleball Club (of which Patefield is a member). Between members of the club, other friends and my kids, she and my daughter Beth found enough people to drive me to all the sessions in January and February.
“It was so amazing to see the outreach,” he added, his voice crackling with emotion. “These were just regular people, like you or me, and they were willing to take time out of their busy days to help somebody else. There aren’t words to express how thankful I am.”
Back in the stands
Now, only 10 months later, Patefield feels almost entirely like his old self. An avid cyclist, he’s biking around 25 times a month and has returned to playing pickleball.
He uses the braces only when on the pickleball court, and he has been on hand for both of SJU’s home games so far this fall - enthusiastically cheering on the Johnnies.
“When you look at some of the things going on in the world today, it’s easy to get depressed,” he said. “But there are so many good people out there. I could not believe the response I got – the help people provided, the cards and letters. Some of the football players came to the hospital the week after the game (at which he collapsed) with a football signed by the entire team. Of course, there are so many players that there wasn’t enough room on the ball, so they brought a couple of greeting cards as well. That could only happen in a community like this.
“I’m 75 and you see a lot of stories about people my age who don’t make it through something like this. I’ve asked God why he chose to bring me back. I don’t have the answers. The only reason I can find is that it’s my job now to talk to anyone who will listen about how good people really are, and how we all need to try to be decent to one another.”