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Globe West Sports

A hit to the heart

Rapid response saved teen hockey player, but his work isn’t over yet

Tyler Symes, 15, is recovering from cardiac arrest after being struck by the puck during a game. Tyler Symes, 15, is recovering from cardiac arrest after being struck by the puck during a game.
(Rose Lincoln for The Boston Globe)
By Lenny Megliola
Globe Correspondent / January 30, 2011

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An airborne slap shot is always an object to fear. A hard rubber puck can put a hockey player in harm’s way, like a line drive back at the pitcher in baseball.

Tyler Symes couldn’t get out of the way on the night of Dec. 20. The 125-pound, 15-year-old freshman on the Milford High/Blackstone Millville Regional High cooperative team cannot remember anything about the puck that slammed into his chest during last month’s game against Nipmuc Regional, held at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough.

Symes staggered before slumping to the ice. “His heart had stopped,’’ said his father, Ben Symes, who was at the game. “I’m not sure how long, but they said about six minutes,’’ when there was no flow of blood to his brain.

“It wasn’t the hardest slap shot,’’ recalled Milford coach Paul Agnese, “but it was from 10 or 12 feet.’’

Play continued for a few seconds before one of the game officials, Jason Galofaro, blew his whistle. “I didn’t see Tyler fall. I was calling a penalty,’’ Galofaro said.

School trainer Jody Whyte and Agnese rushed to the fallen player. “Tyler sort of melted down to the ice,’’ remembered Whyte.

At first, Galofaro held back. “I was there to referee the game. I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes,’’ said the Hudson resident, a fire fighter on the Stow force. “But I saw things were getting worse. I could tell, just by looking in his eyes,’’ Galofaro said, and he decided it was time.

“Jason came over and said he had just passed his EMT exam,’’ said Whyte, who used a defibrillator on Symes.

“I couldn’t feel a pulse,’’ said Galofaro. “I started doing chest compressions. I shocked him twice before he got a pulse. A nurse took over for me.’’

The nurse was Maura Collins, a Milford resident who came out of the stands. As fate would have it, her specialty is cardiac care.

Whyte recalled her saying “I’m a nurse, do you need any help?’’ Collins didn’t want to comment on her role in reviving Symes. “She’s still very affected by this,’’ said her husband, Jim. “It was traumatic for her.’’

Frank Ferrante, a Milford firefighter who has a daughter, Valerie, on the team, joined the group and gave Tyler rescue breaths.

Milford High senior Mike Ozella was the first teammate on the scene. “He was almost convulsing,’’ he said. “We knew he was hurt bad. We were all in shock, praying and hoping for the best.’’

Symes was taken to Marlborough Hospital before being moved to the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.

Doctors explained to Ben Symes, and his wife, Dawn, that Tyler was hit by the puck “between heartbeats,’’ said his father. “And that’s very rare. It causes the heart to flicker. The heart doesn’t know what to do, beat or not beat. It can’t decide, and it stops.’’

Symes has been under the care of Dr. David Kane, a UMass pediatric cardiologist from Sudbury. Tests found no structural heart problem that might have contributed to the episode.

But Kane, reached last week, cautioned that agitation of the heart, known as commotio cordis, has proven fatal in 75 percent of cases. Now, with more people trained in CPR and using a defibrillator, the number has fallen to 65 percent, he said.

In October 2007, University of New Haven senior Nathan Crowell, 22, went into cardiac arrest and later died after he was struck by a puck, just below his chest protector, playing in a recreational game. In 1998, National Hockey League defenseman Chris Pronger, skating for the St. Louis Blues, went into cardiac arrest briefly after he was struck in the chest by a puck in a game against the Red Wings during the Stanley Cup playoffs. He returned to the lineup a short time later.

Symes was most fortunate to have knowledgeable people nearby on the night he was struck.

Nearly six weeks later, Symes is doing well physically, but short-term memory loss has prevented him from returning to classes at Blackstone-Millville.

“He’s forgotten some of the stuff he’s learned this year,’’ said his mother. “He doesn’t remember some of the Christmas gifts he got, but he can remember hockey tournaments he played in when he was 10, 12 years old.’’

Symes will have speech and occupational therapy. “He’ll have to learn how to remember things,’’ said his father. “Some memory may come back, some may not. It’s tough to tell with a brain injury.’’

He is missed by the struggling Scarlet Hawks. “He’s probably our best player,’’ said Agnese. “He’s fast. He’s got good hands. He’s very tough. He doesn’t act like he’s 125 pounds. He’s a great kid. Quiet.’’

“He skated on the first line as a freshman,’’ said Ozella. “He’s an aggressive player. Very smart. He knows how to set up players.’’

After treatments at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, Symes is at home in Millville, continuing his rehabilitation therapy. Once some insurance issues are sorted out, his parents hope to place him in Sargent Rehabilitation Center in Warwick, R.I., a facility that specializes in brain injuries.

He recently attended a team dinner at a Milford restaurant. “He’s doing a lot better than when we saw him in the hospital,’’ said Ozella.

In an on-ice ceremony at New England Sports Center last Saturday before a Milford/Blackstone game, Symes thanked all those who came to his rescue. They were presented with citations.

His athletic future is murky. Returning to the hockey team this season is out of the question.

“Tyler also plays baseball and soccer. “He asked me ‘Am I going to be ready for baseball season?’ ’’ said his father. “We don’t have an answer.’’

As for that fateful night, Symes said, “I don’t remember the game at all. I don’t remember the hospital. Don’t remember any of that.’’ When his mother told him what had happened, he said, “I just didn’t believe it at first. I was shocked.’’

The community response to the Symes family has been heartwarming. “There has been a lot of support, offers for food, for rides. Milford’s been great,’’ said Ben Symes.

Although he can’t recall the incident, Tyler has a grasp of what has happened to him, and in the aftermath how family, friends, medical personnel, school officials, and strangers rallied around him. They are in his thoughts.

“I really want to say thank you for being there to help me get better, and live my life.’’

Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs@aol.com.