I have a dime-sized scar on my right knee. Whenever I catch a glimpse of it, I remember the night I fell on train tracks while covering a train vs. car crash. I was a rookie reporter, and in that crash, a 16-year-old girl died. I watched as her mother arrived at the scene and screamed near where officers were holding up a white sheet in front of the vehicle. As I felt the blood run down my leg, I stood along the train tracks and watched as this woman’s life changed forever.
That same year, I wrote several stories as a serial killer continued to claim victims in Louisiana. I remember like it was yesterday when I arrived on the scene and watched a woman wheeled out on a stretcher, injured from having just survived an attack that killed her husband. She looked right at me before being placed in the ambulance. Her life was forever changed.
Many years later, I interviewed a South Bend man whose wife was killed along with four other women inside a Lane Bryant store in Illinois. He went on a business trip and his wife had decided to join him. She shopped while he attended a conference. During his lunch break, he was riding the elevator up to his room when he looked out the glass enclosure and saw a large police presence at the store across the street. At that time, he wasn’t aware of what had happened, he just knew his wife wasn’t answering her cell phone. I remember him telling me about the full Starbucks cup he found in the cupholder of the couple’s van after her death. It was the van he used to drive home without his wife. She had purchased the drink just before she walked into the store where she died. Half-caf latte, two shots of vanilla, fat-free. I always think of Jenny Bishop when I hear someone order a latte. So many lives were changed that day.
These are all moments I relive only sporadically, and those moments come as thoughts with only quick visions in my head.
But on Monday night, as I watched a player go down during the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals game, another story from my past played out on national television as millions of people watched.
It was 2013 and I was editor of the La Porte newspaper. Sitting in the newsroom, I listened as a call came across the police scanner regarding a high school football player down on the field during practice. It was a late afternoon in September, and I increased the scanner volume as I waited for an update that the player had a broken leg or arm, which was a common call from high schools during sporting events and practices.
Instead, I heard urgency and concern from EMS on the scene. I hesitantly sent out a reporter and photographer. As a journalist, it’s my job to report the news, but I knew it was going to be a sensitive situation because of the things I was hearing on the scanner. I knew a family’s life was about to change.
My photographer came back with a photo of a player down on the field, his coach kneeling next to him and four emergency medical personnel working to resuscitate the teen. Assistant coaches stood nearby with their arms clinched across their chests. Several students stood nearby, turned away from the teen on the field and distress on their faces.
They were the same images I saw earlier this week when Buffalo’s Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field. While Hamlin remains in ICU, his agent reported Thursday the player is awake and holding hands with his family. The outcome was not the same for 17-year-old Jake West. The junior linebacker for La Porte High School collapsed on the field and later was pronounced dead at a local hospital from an undetected heart condition, arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, which leaves the heart unable to pump blood.
In the days following the student’s death, communities in northern Indiana showed their support for not only the family, but the school. When the La Porte Slicers played Merrillville the following Friday, Jake’s number 26 was worn by players for both teams. Several medical centers in La Porte offered free cardiac screenings for area high school students, including for one who ended up needing open heart surgery as a result of their screening.
It was much the same way people worldwide found a way to support Hamlin in the days following his collapse. Many NFL stadiums were illuminated in Bills colors and other professional athletes wore clothing bearing Hamlin’s number 3. In addition, a GoFundMe the NFLer started in December 2020 to benefit children in his hometown of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, had climbed to $7 million as of Thursday afternoon. The fundraising effort had an original goal of $2,500.
Doctors have said on various news programs that the quick response by medical personnel on the field Monday night saved Hamlin, specifically the use of an automated external defibrillator — or AED — and CPR.
Following Jake’s death, it was reported that an AED, which was not on the field at the time of his cardiac episode, may have helped save the teen. It became evident how important the devices are and a push began to have them readily available. His mother Julie West started the Play for Jake Foundation, which partnered with schools to help athletes get heart screenings as well as raise funds to donate and bring awareness to the importance of AEDs.
I met Julie several times following her son’s death, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her Monday night, especially when I heard reports that Hamlin’s mother was at the game. I recalled the “26” decals that appeared following Jake’s death on the backs of vehicles and on storefront windows throughout La Porte. Sometimes, when I’m visiting friends in La Porte, I see a decal and it takes me back to the day I heard that scanner call to La Porte High School.
A couple months ago, when high schoolers were still playing football, I drove through downtown La Porte and saw photos of the current players displayed on lamp posts along the streets. I thought immediately of Jake and all the lives his family has touched. Through the Play for Jake Foundation, so many lives have been changed in a positive way.