Soccer guys’ assist; Rushed to aid L.E.S. senior

BY MICHELE HERMAN | I’ve written twice before about the great group of Saturday morning soccer players known fondly in my household as “the soccer guys.” I got to know the Ligafabulosagrande, as they call themselves, because my husband is a soccer player and many years ago we joined their e-mail routing list. He never plays with them, but I have been quietly following their lives and game reports ever since.

Recently I had to relegate them to a separate “soccer guys” folder so that their prolific weekly e-mails don’t completely clog up my inbox. Still, I check in regularly to be sure I’m not missing a funny game report or other news.

A few Saturdays ago I took a peek and learned that there had been actual life-and-death drama on the field, one that has given me a window onto a stranger’s life that ended in a tragic and possibly preventable death.

It was July 22, a hot, muggy Saturday morning near the end of the regular game in East River Park, and the players were drooping.

I’ll let Walé Bakare, a Nigerian immigrant who is an eight-year regular at the games and the hero of this sad story, tell what happened:

“I saw a lady who had slumped and fallen by the bleachers. I went to investigate because the way she fell looked strange. By the time I got there, another lady was on the phone to 911. A couple of the guys checked to see if she was breathing and couldn’t get a pulse.”

It so happens that Bakare, who works as a legal assistant at a law firm, took a one-day CPR training course at work three years ago and a refresher earlier this year. Though he had never actually performed CPR, he stepped right up.

“The first three minutes are critical, because you can lose oxygen to the brain,” he said. “I started giving her chest compressions at the same time the other lady was still on the phone trying to get the police or E.M.T.’s to come over. She started to gag, so I couldn’t do mouth-to-mouth and kept doing compressions.”

According to multiple eyewitness reports from the guys, New York’s Finest were not in their finest form. The first police car on the scene had no AED (automated external defibrillator). The second had a defibrillator, but the cops had little training in using it; one of the cops from the first car pinch-hit with the compressions while Bakare got the device ready.

Meanwhile New York’s Bravest were thwarted by highway engineering: A fire truck arrived, but was stuck on the wrong side of the F.D.R. Drive. The guys urged the firefighters to walk across the nearby pedestrian bridge, but they stayed in the truck and made a long, slow, out-of-the-way circle to get on the right side of the highway.

Eventually E.M.T.’s drove onto the field and took over with full equipment. By this point the woman, age 75, had been administered a shock and was breathing faintly. They got her on a stretcher and took her to the hospital.

It wasn’t until days later, when the one player who had jotted down her name looked her up online, that we learned she died that same day of cardiac arrest. I have since learned quite a bit more about Elma Francis, a woman I never met but now feel I knew.

Francis lived in Masaryk Towers, a Mitchell-Lama middle-income building on the Lower East Side. According to her son Cameron Francis, she was a social worker with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. Of immigrant stock like many of the soccer guys — in her case, Dominican and Portuguese — she was born on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941.

Her life remained true to its dramatic beginning. Pictures on her Facebook page confirm what her son told me: She was a great beauty in her day, who did some stage acting in New York City as a young woman. He also described her as a single mother to two sons, godmother to a young girl who emigrated from Hong Kong, a probation officer, an active volunteer at the Henry Street Settlement, and an executive assistant at the pioneering Dubner computer company in the early days of computing. In the 1990s she got remarried, to her childhood sweetheart, and lived with him in Australia, where she did social work and was a semipro tennis player. Back in New York she completed her B.S. and M.S.W. degrees.

Her death while out power-walking in the park, something she did regularly, came with two heartbreaking ironies. First, she had been diagnosed with stage-one pancreatic cancer late in 2016. She had chemo and a successful Whipple Procedure to remove the cancer and was declared cancer-free just three days before she collapsed. What’s more, she was scheduled to go on a cruise to Bermuda with one of her sisters on July 23, the day after she died. Her son said that hundreds showed up at her funeral.

I asked Bakare how he felt about performing CPR on Francis, who was then an utter stranger.

“Some people might not want to jump in — a good samaritan may be vilified, worry about lawsuits,” he said. “I couldn’t think about all that. I could only think about getting this lady breathing again.

“The whole experience was out of body,” he added. “Thinking back, it was really frightening.”

He also said that the experience felt just as the instructor said it would.

“We were worried in the course about whether we could compress over ribs, which are so rigid,” he said. “As long as you’re in the right spot, you will feel them go down 2 to 3 inches. You have to press to actually pump the heart, and you have to keep a steady rhythm going, the rhythm of the heart.”

The valiant soccer guys immediately decided to get CPR training for themselves. JJ Sulin, a photographer, has been in touch with the Fire Department of New York and plans to organize a session in the fall on site in the park.

They also plan to look into the poor response time and preparedness by the city’s first responders. Chances of survival after sudden cardiac arrest decrease between 7 and 10 percent with each minute a victim goes without defibrillation. According to the city’s Police Patrol Guide, there are quite a few checks and balances for AED’s, which apparently failed that day: The desk officer on duty must account for all AED’s and assign them to cops trained to use them, and the officers on patrol must report a missing AED from their squad car. Meanwhile, state law requires defibrillators in many locations, including health clubs, dental offices, public schools and places of public assembly.

Another soccer regular, Tauri Piilberg, who manages databases and reports on youth progress for Covenant House International, said a wider review is needed.

“I don’t want to speculate about what could have been with prompt response time with lifesaving equipment,” he said. “But procedure and action plan — or rather total lack of it — to access a public park widely used by people of all ages for sports seven days a week needs a serious review by the city.”

I’ll give Bakare the last word on teamwork — a necessity for lifesaving, soccer and harmony on this troubled earth:

“It was gratifying to use something I’d learned, and I want to make sure a lot of the men can become certified. Playing with these guys is amazing. We’re a mishmash, but we’re like brothers when we come together.”