Harry Whitt parred the 14th hole at Indian Wells Golf Club, walked to the 15th tee, and blasted his best drive of the day during the third round of the World Amateur Handicap Championship. The 10-year tournament veteran seemed to be in good spirits and good health.
Sometimes appearances can be deceiving.
After hitting the near perfect drive on the par 5, Whitt took two steps and collapsed, a victim of cardiac arrest. His heart stopped beating and the West Point, Va., resident was in a fight for his life.
“He was perfectly fine,” playing partner Pete Costello said of Whitt that morning. “He got up, hit the ball, took one step, took the next step and he was on his back. We thought he was playing with us … He was dead and when I picked his head up, there was no muscle, no nothing.”
According to the American Heart Association, 90 percent of people who suffer out-of-hospital cardiac arrest die. On a blistering August afternoon, on a tee box as far from the clubhouse as nearly any location on the course, statistically speaking, Whitt’s prognosis was grim.
But quick thinking, good fortune and a highly trained group of EMTs were part of something that stopped just short of being a miracle.
While Whitt had no idea when he began play that morning, he was paired with the right people at the right course to defy long odds.
His playing partners were Costello, a former volunteer firefighter, Rick McClain, and Ron Hubert, a former medic in the military.
The trio quickly realized Whitt’s collapse wasn’t a gag and sprang into action. Hubert administered CPR, McClain held an umbrella over the stricken Whitt, and Costello was constantly talking to him, letting him know he wasn’t alone and to keep up the fight.
Immediate care is vital to anyone’s chances of surviving cardiac arrest, and the actions of Costello, McClain and Hubert were essential.
They called 911 and the pro shop, where first assistant Bobby McCullough, a former nurse technician at Georgetown Memorial Hospital, morphed from a golf professional to a medical professional.
McCullough, who was returning from an errand, was told Whitt had collapsed. He quickly instructed a co-worker on how EMS could most easily access the 15th tee and had him call 911 and pass along the information.
When McCullough arrived, he found Whitt without a pulse and took over CPR duties, increasing the pace of chest compressions until EMS arrived shortly thereafter.
Emergency responders quickly administered multiple doses of epinephrine to Whitt with no impact. Desperate to restart his heart, paramedics hooked him to paddles and shocked him, a jolt that lifted his body several inches off the ground, and his heart resumed beating, but he was far from free of danger.
McCullough had performed similar duties in the Georgetown Memorial emergency room many times before and knew that even when someone’s heart restarted, they were often unable to pull through.
At 3 p.m. that afternoon, a representative from the hospital called Whitt’s wife, Linda, and delivered ominous news: her husband was on life support, unresponsive, and if she wanted to see him alive, she needed to immediately come down.
Linda and the couple’s son were heading south by 4 p.m., calling periodically for updates that never improved. When her phone rang at 8 p.m., she braced herself for the worst but received news that was as stunning as it was welcome.
“They said he woke up, and they were very shocked,” Linda said.
As quickly as his heart stopped beating, Harry Whitt reawoke. Nearly half of cardiac arrest survivors suffer brain injury and Whitt overheard his nurses talking about the possibility of him being mentally impaired.
“I asked them, ‘How are you going to tell if I have brain damage or not?” Whitt said with a laugh.
He has no recollection of Wednesday and Thursday is foggy, but Whitt was discharged on Friday, August 31. He was sore from the chest compressions (who wouldn’t be?), but he otherwise felt well.
A two-time flight winner at the World Am, Whitt won the tournament’s grand prize in a 2015 random drawing, so he has enjoyed more than his share of good fortune in Myrtle Beach. But a free trip to the area (even one that included airfare for you and three friends) pales in comparison to life-saving resuscitation.
“He is very, very lucky,” said Costello, who visited him in the hospital Wednesday following the completion of his round to make sure Whitt wasn’t alone.
Whitt’s son went to Indian Wells to get his clubs, leading to an emotional meeting with McCullough, and Whitt returned to the course on September 5, less than a week after suffering the cardiac arrest.
“I walked in and told (McCullough) who I was and he looked at me like I was a ghost,” Whitt said. “He said, ‘I never thought I’d see you in here again.’”
While Whitt’s recovery is nothing short of amazing, it’s a bit surreal for him because he has no recollection of the trauma.
He remembers going to the course but none of the round. He woke up in the hospital sore but, from his perspective, otherwise fine. He was released less than 48 hours after the incident and feels good, but he is thankful for the efforts of his playing partners, McCullough and the EMTs who all played a part in saving his life.
When seconds were precious and minutes a practical eternity, everything surrounding what appeared to be an unthinkable tragedy fell perfectly into place.
“It was a very powerful moment,” McCullough said of meeting Whitt at Indian Wells. “I said, ‘I can’t believe we are standing here.’ I gave his wife a big hug and told him how thankful I was he was standing there.”
If all goes well, Whitt plans to return to Myrtle Beach this November for his annual golf trip, and next August, he will play in his 11th World Am.