Log Out | Member Center

65°F

86°/63°

Kansas man's recovery credited to Kapaun

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, July 3, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, July 27, 2013, at 9:31 a.m.

PITTSBURG — Nick Dellasega now wears a gadget implanted under the skin of his chest.

It's to shock his heart, if necessary. The heart seized up on him recently.

He doesn't look scared. He eats biscuits and gravy for breakfast, if it suits him. But he should have died on May 7, at age 26.

A bunch of people saved him, keeping him tied to Earth with the thin strands of a series of crazy coincidences. And prayer: A teenage cousin fell to his knees when Nick collapsed and made a request.

Nick and the Catholic church suspect the prayer linked everything together and kept him alive.

The coincidences are strange enough and the prayer notable enough that a Catholic church investigator has reported Nick's story to the Vatican, which happens to have a representative in Wichita again, sizing up Father Emil Kapaun for sainthood. It was Kapaun to whom the cousin prayed.

The church believes Kapaun might have pulled a few strings from heaven.

* * *

Nick's uncle, Mark Dellasega, is a veteran gastroenterologist, a stomach doctor who knows how to do CPR hand compressions on a dying man's chest.

But as he says, it is something of a miracle that he was anywhere near Nick on that day.

It happened May 7 in the Dellasega family's hometown of Pittsburg.

Dr. Dellasega lives now in Greenville, N.C. By coincidence, he showed up the weekend of May 7 to visit family in Pittsburg.

But Dr. Dellasega is addicted to a serious affliction called golf. He had no desire to watch the 5K charity race Nick was running that Saturday morning.

So the doctor went off with his brother, Doug Dellasega, at 7 a.m. to play 36 holes, telling family that he'd catch up with them long after Nick's race.

"But the crazy thing is, we all played golf so badly," he said. "I got fed up after nine holes and went home.

"I decided to go watch the race after all. But I thought it was at the college (Pittsburg State University).

"So I jogged two miles down there. No one was there. I jogged back home."

Dr. Dellasega said he finally figured out the race was to finish at Hutchinson Football Field near downtown, where Pittsburg high schools play football.

"I went down there. So the lucky thing was, I showed up just two minutes before Nick collapsed."

If he had been two minutes later, with all that jogging and dallying around, Nick likely would have died.

* * *

Dr. Dellasega's timely arrival was the first strand in a web that kept Nick alive. Nick's ego put the second strand in place.

Toward the end of the 5K race, with his teenage cousin Caleb Dellasega racing to pass him, Nick kicked into a higher gear.

Nick had been a free safety for the Pitt State football team, after all. He was only 26, with a big chest, skinny waist and a body in great condition. Getting outrun by a grinning, 18-year-old cousin was not an option; he'd never let him forget it.

"Nick turned around and told me he was going to beat me," Caleb said later. "He pulled ahead."

That was lucky. It meant Caleb was 10 yards behind Nick when Nick collapsed. Had Caleb been 10 yards in front, he would not have seen Nick go down.

And he would not have shouted for help to Dr. Dellasega, who had just arrived at the finish line, only 100 yards away.

* * *

The charity race meant a lot to Nick. It was organized in memory of Pittsburg native Dylan Meier, the former Kansas State University quarterback who had died in a hiking accident a year before.

He'd been Nick's friend, so Nick had driven from Wichita — where he works at Koch Industries — and lined up to take part in the "Get Busy Livin' " run with more than 650 other racers, including several cousins.

He ran well enough to be in top 30 as they neared the finish line on the football field.

Caleb crept up on him. Nick told him he'd beat him.

He pulled away just as they ran onto the pavement that divides Pittsburg Middle School from the bleachers on the north side of Hutchinson Football Field.

A few feet more, and Nick would make a hard right turn off the pavement, run through a small gate onto the football field and toward the finish.

Had he paid attention, he would have seen Dr. Dellasega and a bunch of relatives at the finish line. The doctor could already see him.

But Nick didn't see them.

It was 10:37 a.m.

* * *

"All of a sudden Nick went down," Caleb said.

"I was 10 yards behind. I stopped. Two guys ran to him. He went into convulsions; he was kicking his legs, moving his arms."

The men rolled Nick over. He had hit face first; he had two red skid marks, just above and just below his right eye.

"Nick's eyes were open and it seemed like he had a smile on his face," Caleb said. "One of the guys poured water on Nick's neck from a bottle, and I thought Nick went down because he was hot."

Caleb stood over his cousin as other racers ran by. Thinking all would be well, Caleb ran for the finish line.

With 50 yards to go, he saw Dr. Dellasega at the finish line.

"Nick is down!" Caleb yelled.

The doctor did not hear.

Caleb yelled again. "Nick is down!"

He pointed, back to the concrete drive.

Dr. Dellasega saw men kneeling around a body.

He was 61 years old and had had mild carditis two years before, coming close to needing a heart transplant. But he was in good shape now.

He ran.

* * *

Dr. Dellasega fell to his knees and began pumping chest compressions directly over his nephew's heart.

He had thought, when Caleb called out, that Nick had tripped, or fainted. But he saw from the gray in Nick's face, that this was cardiac arrest.

"Somebody call 911 right now!" he called out.

Somebody did, at 10:40 a.m., three minutes after Nick went down. Dr. Dellasega pumped his chest some more, felt for a pulse.

No pulse. The doctor glanced around.

He knew many communities in recent years had stashed small and surprisingly sophisticated heart defibrillators inside public and commercial buildings. If someone has a cardiac arrest, any non-medical person can lay the electrodes on, and let the machine decide whether to shock the heart.

"Somebody needs to see if they can find us a defibrillator!" Dr. Dellasega called out. "Now!"

A few feet away stood a stranger that none of the Dellasegas had met.

His name was Bryan Mahnken, and he works as a physical education teacher in Pittsburg schools.

* * *

What happened next might be coincidence. Or perhaps Kapaun really was looking out for Nick.

Whatever the reason: Mahnken, as he told the family, only a few days before had been handed a key to Pittsburg Middle School, though he didn't work there. It was the massive red brick building only steps away from Nick.

Mahnken knew the school would be locked, the hallways dark. He had no idea where the defibrillator might be, but knew there was probably one in there. When he heard the doctor call for one, he ran to a door, inserted his key.

He had no idea where to look. Call it fate, call it what you will — Mahnken ran right to a defibrillator.

He grabbed it.

* * *

It kept going that way, luck so crazy good that it seemed miraculous.

Mahnken ran out of the school and right into a woman who happened to be a physician assistant.

Mahnken didn't know how to work a defibrillator; she did. She grabbed it.

She ran to Nick and the doctor, and pulled the leaves with the electrodes out of the machine.

Dr. Dellasega by that time had yanked Nick's shirt up to his armpits, baring his chest. Nick still had no pulse.

The doctor and others doing CPR had kept Nick's blood going. But this could give him only the slimmest of chances.

The physician assistant stuck the electrodes onto Nick's chest, at 10:42 a.m., only five minutes after Nick went down.

Zap.

Nothing. No pulse, no respiration.

The doctor thought his nephew was dead, or close.

The ambulance arrived: 10:44 a.m. Seven minutes had passed.

* * *

Two muscular-looking emergency medical technicians got out.

They moved fast. Micah Ehling and Jordan Garner had answered hundreds of ambulance calls, far more than a hundred involving heart seizures.

They knew what a lethal cardiac arrest looked like. They thought this one looked lethal the moment they saw Nick's face.

This call hit them both in the gut. They recognized their boyhood friend Nick Dellasega immediately.

They loaded him in the ambulance, with Ehling doing chest compressions. 10:45 a.m.; eight minutes had passed. Ehling searched again for a pulse.

They shut the ambulance doors. Ehling, huddled inside, kept doing chest compressions, but was surprised.

"I know what a face looks like when the soul leaves the body. And that's what Nick looked like,'' he said.

But when he'd felt for a pulse, he had found one.

* * *

Outside the ambulance doors, with extended family weeping around him, Dr. Dellasega felt sick for the first time.

He'd felt calm and poised in the eight minutes that he and others pushed on Nick's chest; adrenaline and training had kicked in.

But he knew he would have to call his brother now, Nick's father, Joe Dellasega, and tell him the news. Nick's parents were out of town this weekend.

The Dellasega cousins and in-laws wept. He wanted to weep himself.

He looked at the ambulance, which sat there, not moving.

As a doctor, he had spent a lot of time around EMTs, and he got a little frustrated now. EMTs have their way of doing things; instead of racing to the hospital, for example, they sometimes like to spend time at the scene, "stabilizing the patient."

"Forget that here," Dr. Dellasega thought. "We're three minutes from the hospital."

Dr. Dellasega walked to ambulance doors and opened them. He saw something that puzzled him.

The EMTs looked... surprised.

Ehling gave the doctor a quick look; the doctor got the idea he wasn't wanted here.

"What's going on?" the doctor said.

With a flick of his hand, Ehling told the doctor to shut the doors.

But just before the doors shut, Ehling spoke.

"We've got a pulse."

* * *

Just before they arrived at the emergency room, Nick startled the EMTs again. As Ehling prepared to stick a breathing tube down Nick's throat, Nick opened his eyes.

Ehling felt a surprise deeper than any he'd ever felt on a call. He had never seen this in a cardiac arrest. Neither had Garner. Nick should be dead, or brain-damaged.

Nick blinked. Then looked surprised. Then embarrassed, when he saw that his chest was bare. Then he saw the face of his childhood friend, about to shove a plastic tube down his throat.

"Micah!" Nick said.

"What's going on?"

* * *

The rest of the earth-bound story about Nick Dellasega's survival can be told in only a few words now:

Doctors determined that Nick did not have clogged arteries or heart disease, which is why he was eating biscuits and gravy at Jimmie's Diner in Wichita the other day. They determined he had an electrical rhythm problem.

They sent him home, after a few days, with a pacemaker implanted, not only monitoring his heart, but prepared to shock it back into proper rhythm if necessary.

* * *

But let us travel back to that scene on the pavement.

Nick is down.

Soon he is surrounded by Dr. Dellasega, Bryan Mahnken, the PA, cousin Caleb and all the others who performed so ably that day, or who wept by his side.

Only a few of them, Dr. Dellasega included, noticed one other person, off to the side.

He was small in stature and played no physical role in Nick's survival. But Nick and the doctor and everyone else who was there that day now think he might have played the crucial role.

He was kneeling on the concrete, praying.

His name was Jonah Dellasega. He is Nick's cousin and Caleb's younger brother.

And though he was only 14, he possessed a mind of poise and purpose that he had cultivated through a short lifetime of devotion to God.

Jonah was running in the 5K race, too, wearing a bright red T-shirt with the logo of the Pitt State Gorillas printed on the front. He came running up to Nick's prone body just after Dr. Dellasega started CPR.

The Dellasega women, running up now and distraught at seeing Jonah seeing Nick like this, shooed him off to the side.

But no matter.

Jonah walked a few feet from the group. He dropped to his knees and began to pray, to Jesus and Mother Mary, and Father Emil Kapaun.

* * *

Jonah prayed to Kapaun all the way to the hospital and kept it up after he went in there.

He knew the whole story about the priest and U.S. Army chaplain from Kansas: the battlefield heroism in the Korean War, the way he'd saved hundreds of prisoners in the camps after his capture. Kapaun gave away his food while starving, inspired men to love and help each other even as hundreds died. He blessed the guards who killed him even as they led him to perish in the Death House.

Nearly everyone in the Dellasega clan are devout Catholics. When Dr. Dellasega came down with mild carditis two years ago, the whole family got together and prayed to Jesus and Mary and Father Kapaun to save him.

But Jonah, a thoughtful, skinny kid, was by no means devout merely because of family. He had thought deeply about his faith for years on his own.

Two years ago, already devoted to the teachings of Jesus, he had learned about Kapaun and decided to model the rest of his life after him.

So when the family shooed him away, Jonah prayed to Kapaun, as he had prayed to him many times already.

Skeptics might look at this story and point out that the time sequence is off.

They could rightly say that Jonah did not start praying until after the doctor began CPR and long after that series of coincidences that brought the golf-addicted doctor out of his golf game, and then out of his mistaken jog toward the campus.

How could a prayer save a life in advance of the prayer? But there is an answer.

And the church investigators know about it and decided to forward this story to the Vatican.

If Kapaun really is a soul in heaven, and if he has some sort of heavenly message inbox that lets mortals contact him there, then Jonah has been filling up that inbox for years now, asking Kapaun for guidance, asking Kapaun for strength, asking Kapaun to watch over all of Jonah's loved ones down here on Earth.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

Subscribe to our newsletters

The Wichita Eagle welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views. Please see our commenting policy for more information.

Have a news tip? You can send it to wenews@wichitaeagle.com.

Search for a job

in

Top jobs