|Ben Rice, at home in Leicester with cousin Jesse
McBride, center, and sister Jenny, uses a device
that measures the volume of air he inhales
Ben, whose life was saved by a defibrillator,
had open-heart surgery.
CARLOS ORTIZ staff photographer
(January 29, 2006) — It was a nightmare like none he had ever experienced. So frightening and so surreal. At the very moment an athletic trainer attempted to bring him back to life, Perry High School wrestler Ben Rice dreamt that people were trying to drown him.
Which explains why the 18-year-old senior panicked and leaped immediately to his feet after his heart resumed beating and he regained consciousness atop those bleachers two weeks ago. Disoriented and dazed, Ben began pushing away the very people who had just resuscitated him with a defibrillator. He mistakenly thought he was still dreaming and that they were attempting to submerge him against his will.
It was only after his father, Steve Rice, grabbed hold of him and assured him that everything was going to be all right that Ben settled down.
As he slowly regained his bearings, he realized he hadn’t been drowning that day. But he could sense that something had gone terribly wrong, causing him to black out.
It wasn’t until later that Ben learned he had suffered sudden cardiac arrest. He really had visited death’s doorstep — that was no dream — and were it not for the quick response of several people and the presence of a defibrillator, he would have lost his life shortly after winning the 101st wrestling match of his illustrious high school sports career.
The subsequent double by-pass surgery he underwent at Strong Memorial Hospital 10 days ago corrected a condition Ben had since birth — a condition that restricted blood flow from his twisted arteries.
Though this strapping 6-foot-2, 189-pound young man won’t be able to fulfill his dream of wrestling for Perry at the state tournament in March, you won’t hear any complaints.
Ben understands he already has beaten his toughest opponent: death. He now understands there is no greater victory than life.
“When I think about the alternative,” Ben said the other day from his family’s home just up the road from their Livingston County dairy farm, “I realize that I am oh, so lucky.”
A Lasting Legacy
Louis Acompora, a lacrosse player from Long Island, had not been as fortunate. He died six years ago, at age 14, while blocking a shot in a game for Northport High School. Had there been a defibrillator there to shock his heart back into rhythm, Acompora might have survived. But his death played a role in saving Ben’s life and the lives of 21 other young people throughout New York state the past three years.
Not long after Louis passed away, his parents, John and Karen Acompora, formed a foundation in their son’s memory that successfully lobbied for the passage of a law that requires defibrillators at each of New York’s public schools. It was signed by Gov. George Pataki on the day Louis was scheduled to graduate from high school and has come to be known as “Louis’ Law.”
“Every time we hear about a success story such as Ben’s, it warms our hearts,” said Karen Acompora, a co-chair of the Louis J. Acompora Memorial Foundation (www.la12.org), which is pushing for other organizations and other states to follow suit as far as defibrillators are concerned. “Ben is living proof of how important this issue is.”
Grateful for his second chance, Ben has agreed to become a spokesman for the foundation once he recovers completely.
“I might not be here if they hadn’t campaigned for defibrillators in schools,” he said. “If there hadn’t been one at that wrestling match, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I would have been dead and buried. That’s a scary thought.”
Scary, too, are thoughts about all the other times cardiac arrest could have happened, especially when he was exerting himself while doing strenuous farm chores.
“If I had suffered it out in the fields or in the barn, I would have died,” he said. “I’m fortunate it happened where and when it did.”
Ben had just finished his second match of the day during that Jan. 14 tournament in Franklinville, an hour south of Buffalo, and although he had won again, he was not pleased with the way he had wrestled. He told his parents he would join them at the concession stand for a bite to eat in a little while.
Ben wanted some time to himself, so he climbed to the top of the bleachers and called his girlfriend on his cell phone. A minute or two into their conversation, Ben slumped over in the stands. Fortunately, a mother of one of his teammates noticed and immediately screamed for help.
Athletic trainer Melissa O’Brien sprinted up the bleachers. While she checked his vital signs, Ben became unconscious and stopped breathing. O’Brien called out for a defibrillator. She performed CPR to no avail while waiting for life-saving equipment to be plugged in.
With the assistance of two mothers who were nurses, patches were placed on Ben’s chest and he was given a jolt from the defibrillator. His heart began beating again.
“It was an overwhelming experience,” said O’Brien, who has been a certified athletic trainer in the Southern Tier for nine years. “I had never experienced anything this severe before. I felt a tremendous sense of relief. I was totally drained afterward. I’m still dealing with my emotions two weeks later.”
So are Ben and everyone else familiar with his close call.
The outpouring of support from near and far has been overwhelming.
“Every day, there are 15-20 messages on our voicemail, and the cards and letters keep coming in,” said Ben’s mom, Polly Rice. “We’ve had people drop off meals when we were running back and forth from the hospital. The kids took up a collection for us at the school. And so many people showed up at Strong that they had to move Ben into a bigger room.”
One of the nicest gestures occurred at last weekend’s wrestling tournament at Hornell. Each year, special T-shirts are presented to the winning team. The meet came down to Hornell and Letchworth, but before the final match, the coaches from each school called Perry coach George West down from the stands. They presented him with a shirt to take to the hospital to give to Ben. The fans stood and cheered for nearly five minutes. West couldn’t stop crying.
A beautiful reminder
Steve Rice was understandably nervous the morning of his son’s open-heart operation.
“It was cloudy when we arrived at the hospital at 6 that morning, but when Ben went into surgery, I couldn’t help but notice the sun come out,” he recalled. “It stayed out the entire time he was being operated on, and then when the surgery was over, it got cloudy again. I told Ben that somebody up there had cleared the clouds out so he could keep an eye on him and making sure he was OK.”
It will take nearly six months for his breastbone to heal, but he may be cleared to return to school within a week or two. Ben admits to being antsy. He’s not used to taking it slow, but he’s going to do his best to follow his doctor’s orders.
Before the interview ended the other day, he lifted his T-shirt to show his visitor the fresh, 9-inch scar that divides his chest.
It may make some queasy, but to Ben and his family, it will always be a thing of beauty — a reminder of the day he got a second chance at life.