On the night of February 7, in the parking lot of a Port Jefferson Station indoor sports facility, Michael Gibson woke up, bewildered, in the back of an ambulance. “What’s going on?” he asked. Less than an hour earlier, the Ronkonkoma retiree, 66, a former collegiate hurdler and lifelong athlete, had been leading a speed and agility session for youth baseball players coached by his old friend, Jason Merz. Gibson and Merz go back 30 years — Gibson had been an assistant coach for Merz’s East Islip High School football team. Back then, “Coach Mike” was adored by his student-athletes, Merz says: “Everybody loved him.” So Merz, a father of three, had tapped Gibson to run a few speed clinics. That evening, all had gone smoothly. Gibson was getting ready to head home. But then, mid-conversation with Merz, his face went blank. “It was like he was there, and then he wasn’t,” Merz recalls. Gibson collapsed. He’d suffered a cardiac arrest. Nearly 90% of cardiac arrests that occur outside of a hospital are fatal, according to the American Heart Association. Gibson’s physicians say he likely would have died if not for the bystanders on the field who gave him CPR, and the first responders and skilled physicians at two Northwell hospitals who took over his care. As Mather interventional cardiologist Giridhar Korlipara, MD, one of those doctors, puts it: “He’s a lucky guy.” It took both good fortune and great care to give Gibson’s story a happy ending.
“He was there, then he wasn’t.”
At about 7pm on February 7, Gibson and Merz were saying their goodbyes when things suddenly went wrong.
Jason Merz: Mike just dropped. There were no warning signs; he just went right to the ground. I could tell he was struggling to breathe, and he was turning blue. I had a parent call 911.
Merz started doing compressions, then realized he needed help. Rich Savicki, a fourth-grade teacher from Stony Brook, had just arrived at the facility with his 16-year-old and heard Merz calling.
Rich Savicki: We’d just gotten there for batting practice. The boys were setting up when Jason ran over, yelling, “Mike collapsed! Does anyone know CPR?” It’s hard to describe the feeling; it was like blank panic. I ran to the front desk to see if they had a defibrillator, and then ran to Mike and started doing compressions. Another guy I didn’t know was there too, keeping time, tracking how long Mike had been down.
Merz: Rich and this other gentleman [Mike Elflein, of Shoreham, another parent] took over. I started trying to contact Mike’s wife. [Gibson also has
two grown children, Anthony, 31, and Lauren, 32.] In my head, I’m panicking, thinking, “Mike, you can’t die.” This is someone I’ve known for 30 years. I can’t let this happen.
“Usually they don’t come in alive.”
Savicki and Elflein continued until first responders arrived. Suffolk County police officer Kyle Nilsen used an AED, or defibrillator, to shock Gibson’s heart back into normal rhythm. Paramedics also applied a mechanical CPR machine known as a Thumper to Gibson’s chest. By the time the ambulance reached Mather Hospital, Gibson had revived.
Michael Gibson: When I got there, I was yapping away. I couldn’t believe it when they told me I’d had CPR for so long. The ER nurse at Mather was looking at me, shaking his head. “Usually they don’t come in alive,” he says.
Attending emergency physician Kenneth Hirsch, MD, was relieved to see Gibson talking. But he was worried about Gibson’s heart.
Dr. Hirsch: When someone comes to us after a cardiac arrest, we do a test called an electrocardiogram (EKG) to see if they had a STEMI, or ST-elevation myocardial infarction, the most serious type of heart attack. People who have STEMIs need to go to the catheterization lab immediately for further assessment and treatment. Fortunately, Mike’s EKG looked good; I immediately sent it to my colleague, Dr. Korlipara, the on-call cardiac catheterization cardiologist, who agreed. We decided to admit him and treat him medically we gave him a beta blocker to moderate his heart rate, and baby aspirin to prevent a blood clot. Then we’d send him to the catheterization lab in the morning.
“Three blood vessels were more than 90% blocked.”
The next day, Dr. Korlipara performed a coronary angiogram, a test that helps physicians evaluate blood flow through the heart.
Dr. Korlipara: When somebody collapses like Mike did, we worry about myocardial ischemia, a condition in which the heart isn’t getting enough oxygen. Ischemia can happen due to coronary artery disease. Plaque builds up in the arteries, which narrows them and blocks blood flow to the heart. That narrowing can cause the heart’s rhythm to be abnormal. That’s what happened to Mike, and it caused him to collapse. Before we opened our catheterization lab in 2021, patients like Mike would have to be transferred for care. Now, thanks to the lab, we can detect and treat heart attacks right away. Many of our patients get stents to open their clogged arteries. To place them, we thread a catheter into an artery, inflate a very small balloon to give us some space, and then apply the stent, a small metal implant that holds the artery open. But some patients need more advanced intervention. When we performed Mike’s coronary angiogram, we found that three of his blood vessels were more than 90% blocked. He needed surgery. We do not have a cardiac surgical service at Mather, but South Shore University Hospital does. So I told Mike he needed to be transferred.
Dr. Korlipara placed an urgent call to South Shore University Hospital (SSUH) surgeon Harold Fernandez, MD, to explain Gibson’s case. Within hours, Gibson was transferred to SSUH, where he was stabilized in preparation for open heart surgery. Gibson needed a quadruple bypass — a major operation.
Dr. Fernandez: To perform a bypass, we have to open a patient’s chest and use the heart-lung machine, which stops their heart but keeps oxygenated blood pumping to the brain and the rest of their body. Then, to fix the blockages, we use grafts from another part of the body — like veins from the leg — to create new avenues for the blood to travel. We needed to do four of those on Mike. He had so many blockages, it was hard to know which caused his heart attack.
“I trust you, I’ll see you on the other side.”
The next morning, before being put under for his surgery, Gibson addressed his surgical team. “I hear you guys are the best,” he said, his voice quavering. “I trust you. I’ll see you on the other side.” The eight-hour surgery went beautifully. As Gibson slept in recovery, his wife, daughter and cousin, a close friend, spent the day by his bedside. Late that night, reluctantly, they left. Hours later, around 4am, Gibson woke up. Gibson had been through a lot and yet, all things considered, felt OK. Within days, he was transferred to a surgical stepdown unit.
Gibson: I remember the head of the physical therapy department coming in and taking me for a walk. “You’re pretty good on your feet,” she says to me. I wouldn’t quit. I would grab a nurse in the evening and say, “When you’re free, can we go for another walk?”
“This is Mike Gibson, the man from the sports center. You saved my life.”
Eight months later, Gibson is thriving. Thanks to a healthier diet, more exercise and a new medication regimen, he’s lost 50 pounds and reduced his blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Every six months, he checks in with Dr. Korlipara. He’s also in daily contact with Merz and Savicki. For weeks after the event at the field, Savicki wasn’t sure what had become of Gibson. Then, on March 29, out of the blue, he got a phone call.
Savicki: I was walking out of a hockey game when I saw I had a missed call. Mike had left a message on my phone: “This is Mike Gibson, the man from the sports center. You saved my life. I can’t thank you enough.” He was choking up. I’m getting choked up just thinking about it. I still have it. I’ll never delete it. The next day, I called him back, and we’ve been in touch ever since.
Gibson created a group text that includes Savicki, Merz and some of his other heroes; he sends them a positive message every day to remind them how thankful he is. At an emotional Northwell press conference in June, he had the chance to reunite with some of them.
Savicki: Someone said to me that day, “You were his heartbeat for 10 minutes.” I think about that a lot; if everything had happened five minutes later, Mike would’ve been in his car, driving home. And five minutes earlier, I might not have been there to help.
Merz: It was incredible. The right people were there at the right time.
Gibson: People can be indifferent when a stranger needs help — but not these guys. I was dead. They saved my life. What more can you say?