Steve Blackledge The Columbus Dispatch
By and large, competitive athletes operate on the assumption that they are indestructible.
Bounding carefree up and down basketball courts since the age of 3 or 4, Nick Bapst couldn’t have imagined the nightmarish episode on Oct. 25 that would change his life forever.
During a timeout about five minutes into a scrimmage at Findlay, the Ashland University junior guard from Grove City returned to the bench, sat down and — to the horror of teammates, coaches and onlookers — went into cardiac arrest.
Due in part to short-term memory loss sustained when he stopped breathing awaiting treatment, Bapst recalls virtually nothing about the 14 days he spent in Ohio State University’s Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital fighting for his life.
Ashland coach John Ellenwood, however, will never forget the horror of that night.
“I heard a chair hit the floor and immediately thought maybe he had been leaning back too far and it had tipped over,” Ellenwood said. “But when I went over there, judging by the way he looked, I thought he was having a seizure. He was struggling to get his breath. I was holding his hand, but he was unresponsive, kind of like he was going to sleep.
“We called an ambulance immediately and between the 10 to 12 minutes it took for them to arrive, we shocked him with the defibrillator. He wasn’t breathing for a few minutes before the paramedics got there and revived him. All coaches are required to take EMS training, but you never expect to have to use it. It was the scariest thing you ever want to deal with as a coach. I’m still shaken up about it.”
Bapst was transported to Blanchard Valley Medical Center in Findlay, where doctors lowered his body temperature to 91 or 92 degrees and placed him in a medically induced coma for 24 hours to allow his brain and heart to heal. Four hours later, he was transferred to Ross Heart Hospital for further treatment.
Eventually, Bapst was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the ventricular wall that is a common cause of sudden cardiac arrest in young people and athletes. It is referred to as a silent killer because no symptoms or warning signs appear.
According to the American Heart Association, a cardiac arrest is caused by malfunctions in the heart’s electrical system, whereas a heart attack occurs because of blockages in blood flow.
During his two-week stay in the intensive care unit — some of it spent with the aid of a breathing tube — Bapst was fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator under his left rib cage. The device uses electrical pulses to help monitor and correct life-threatening arrhythmias. Information is constantly recorded and sent to Ross.
Upon his release, Bapst was told he no longer could play basketball or participate in any strenuous athletics. A finance major with a minor in communications, the 20-year-old resumed classes on Nov. 20.
“In one sense, it hasn’t really hit me that I won’t ever play basketball again because I’m so thankful and happy to be alive,” Bapst said. “I was on the same workout regimen for four or five years in a row, and it’s kind of strange deviating from that. But I love being around my boys at Ashland. I still go to every meeting, practice and game.”
Bapst received a groundswell of support from two communities. Grove City guard P.J. Jones requested the No. 24 that Bapst wore for the Greyhounds when he averaged 25 points per game and made first-team Dispatch All-Metro and third-team all-Ohio his senior season. At Ashland, standout and close friend Wendell Davis of Reynoldsburg will honor Bapst by wearing his No. 10 jersey the rest of the season.
“We strongly believe that all the prayers and thoughts carried Nicholas through this,” said Lisa Bapst, Nick’s mother. “To see him struggling so badly in those first few days and now … it’s proof that miracles are performed.”
Ellenwood still considers Bapst a valuable member of Ashland’s team, only now in a different capacity.
“Nick is a spiritual leader for us, and one of the most popular kids on our campus,” Ellenwood said. “He has the best attitude you could imagine in dealing with this. He has transitioned from a potential all-conference-type player to a coaching role. Not only is he an inspiration for us on the sideline, he’s my eyes and ears now. He has an understanding of what’s happening on the floor that I can’t possibly have, and he relays that to me.
“In the bigger picture of things, his presence gives all of us some perspective on life and what’s really important. This is a jolt to Nick, but now he can now focus on his life and career after basketball, which is what players at all levels should be doing.”
Bapst and his parents are committed to educating coaches and athletes about hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in hopes of preventing a similar — or worse — fate for others. The disease often is hereditary, but sometimes it is a mutation. The entire Bapst family — including an older brother, Brandon, and a younger sister, Lexi — is in the process of being screened. Lexi, a sophomore basketball player at Grove City, already has been cleared.
Just within the past two years, all 50 states have enacted laws or regulations requiring Automated External Defibrillators to be placed at public gathering places to prevent cardiac death. The survival rate of cardiac arrest is only 10 percent without swift and proper treatment, and Bapst likely would have died without the assistance of an AED.
“Whenever I go to a school’s gym now, I immediately locate where the AED is,” said Bob Bapst, Nick’s father. “Anyone can operate one of these. No one should ever wait for the squad to arrive. Time is of the essence.
“Also, there is a lot of education out there on sudden cardiac arrest. There are ways to screen your kids. Some schools are offering it as a preventative measure. No one ever thinks it can happen to them and they simply don’t bother with it. Nick is proof that it can.”