It’s unclear how many of them even wanted to be there for the professional development day, as the physical education staffs from the town’s two high schools gathered on Oct. 14 across from Middletown High School North for a United States Tennis Association workshop on the courts at Tindall Park.
Let alone that it would end up being their finest hour.
And because it was, Nick Catania, who works a Middletown High School South, will be on the bench tonight when his top-ranked Point Pleasant Beach boys basketball team, the reigning NJSIAA Group I champs, open their season against Keansburg.
“That’s the hardest thing. How can you thank somebody for saving your life?” the 35-year-old Catania wondered aloud. “I’ve got two young kids, and I’m going to get a chance to see them grow up now.”
In terms of teamwork, it was one of the finest examples ever at the Jersey Shore.
At just after 9 a.m., as the workshop got underway, Catania collapsed and went into cardiac arrest due to arrhythmia, a disturbance in the heart’s electrical activity.
Within seconds, Lisa Smith was at Catania’s side, yelling for someone to go to the school for the Automatic External Defibrillator, before starting CPR, with John Mcguire, Donna Bower and Liz Keene all rotated in on the chest compressions, while Al Bigos continued to check for a pulse.
John Bogosian began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, just a week after Middletown North nurse Michele Molinaro informed him his life-saving certification had expired, bringing him into her office to recertify him.
“I was just reacting. We were all just reacting,” Bogosian said.
There was some good fortune, too.
The school system’s nurses happened to be at Middletown North for a class to become CPR instructors, and came running. Rod Murchie, a former Middletown South and college wide receiver, was at the tennis courts to race the 150 yards and back with the AED device in what’s been described as world record time. Middletown patrolman Thomas Hughes was in his car adjacent to the park at the time.
The first nurses to reach Catania were Casey Burdge and Molinaro, and they went right to work with the AED, while Hughes took over the chest compressions.
“As a student in Middletown, I had coach (Bigos),” Burdge said. “So it was hard for me to see them watching me, and see how they reacted. It was a tough situation. It really was.”
Catania’s heart was shocked five times on the basketball courts, and six more in the ambulance before it finally restarted and he began breathing again on the way to Riverview Medical Center, where he spent two days in an induced coma.
In all, 18 employees were commended by the Middletown Board of Education for their part in saving Catania’s life, along with members of the Port Monmouth, Leonardo and Lincroft first aid squads, and MONOC paramedics. Because of their quick and decisive actions, Catania had no damage to his brain or heart.
“When I saw him in the hospital it was amazing, because we had no idea what was going to happen when the ambulance left,” said Victa McKenzie, the principal for transition of instruction, who was leading that day’s exercise.
“They were an incredible team who jumped in. People who had never worked together before reacted like this well oiled team, stepped right in did mouth-to-mouth and rotated in and out. Everyone helped, sprinting for the AED, calling the police, the officer arrived with incredible chest compressions. It was just absolutely amazing. To me, this experience was life-changing for me.”
On Thursday, Catania met Burdge for the first time as many of those who were there that day assembled.
The first time he had been formally introduced to Bogosian was when he stopped by Catania’s hospital room.
“My first comment when I saw him in the hospital,” Bogosian said, “because I didn’t know him and I had to lighten things up I said ‘next time Nick, could you at least shave?’ “
Catania remembers almost nothing of that day, his wife Beth attempting to fill in the blanks in the hospital.
“There’s no way I could ever thank them. I just try to be thankful every day,” he said.
“It takes a lot of courage for people to do that. Not everybody is going to jump in and do something like that because in that situation a lot of people freeze or you get scared. Those are normal reactions. But the people here are heroes because they reacted so quickly and every doctor I’ve seen has said that. The reason why I don’t have brain damage, why I recovered so quickly, is because of them because they did the CPR so quickly and so efficiently.”
Catania’s first concern was his family, including his 4-year-old son A.J. and 22-month-old daughter Hailey.
Now, the Point Pleasant Beach graduate’s focus has turned to his second family, the Garnet Gulls’ team that lost to powerhouse Atlantic City in last year’s Tournament of Champions.
“It makes you appreciate everything a little bit more,” he said. “My family and kids, I don’t take anything for granted anymore, and I think we all do at times.
“Right now, I’m just thankful to be here.”