Fans save referee suffering from cardiac arrest during basketball game

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DES MOINES, Iowa - A seventh-grade boys basketball game in Iowa turned into a life-or-death situation when a referee collapsed on the court. But thanks to parents in the stands, he is alive and talking.

“I like the comradery. Hopefully being a mentor to the younger players," Bernie Rangel told WHO. Rangel is a longtime Iowa referee, officiating six different sports for 30-plus years. But on Thursday night, for the first time, he didn’t make it to the end of the game.

“As soon as the horn blew, I took the ball,” Rangel explained. “I went from tossing the ball to the bench area, and from [there] I remember nothing. It was just complete nothing.” Rangel collapsed, his heart stopped beating.

“As officials we are trained to make hundreds of split decisions in any given night, but this one, I was just racing,” friend and fellow referee Jamie Bruggeman said. “My heart was racing. I just went into panic mode almost, but I tried to stay as calm as I could because I knew as soon as he hit the floor it was serious.”

Bruggeman immediately ran to the crowd and yelled for help. Luckily, in a matter of seconds Rangel was surrounded.

“I was at the right place, at the right time, with the right people that brought me back,” Rangel said.

At least three nurses, a police sergeant, and an emergency medical technician (EMT) were all in the stands watching their sons play when they raced onto the court.

“It’s kind of the nurse’s intuition,” Melanie Hermann, a nurse at UnityPoint Health in Des Moines said. “I think everybody who responded had that same feeling, because everybody jumped in so quickly. [We] realized that this was very serious and there was something that we needed to do to help him.”

It was cardiac arrest. But thankfully CPR and an automated external defibrillator (AED) shocked Rangel’s heart back to beating. An outcome doctors say could’ve been much different.

“They said ‘if you were anywhere else you would not be here. They actually, well, saved your life,’” Rangel said.

“It was a great ending,” Ames Police Sergeant Mark Watson said. “A lot of times we don’t see that being on patrol. I’m usually four or five minutes away from a call, so it’s neat to have everyone respond this way, being so close and everything just falling into place.”

Many are using the term heroes, but for these nurses and first responders, they say they were just doing what they are trained to do. But for Rangel, they mean so much more.

“I thought [I] must of had a guardian angel,” Rangel said. “How could these individuals come all together, professional nurses, [an] EMT who knew CPR. It gave me a second chance at life.”

Rangel says he is forever grateful for everyone who played a role in saving his life. He does need to have surgery to put a defibrillator in his heart, but doctors say with time he should be able to ref again.

Nurse Hermann says having that AED so quickly made all the difference in making sure Bernie is still with us today. Bernie is now out of surgery and is recovering.

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