South Side sports enthusiast Elston Harris, 53, is lucky to be alive and loving life. On August 31, 2017, Harris helped unfurl the Chicago Bears’ team flag at a pre-season home game against the Cleveland Browns – flanked by the police officer who saved his life and the doctor steering him towards a healthy future.
For the past 30 years, Harris, a retired Chicago Public School teacher, has championed a well-known basketball mentoring program for youths on Chicago’s South Side. This program, known as the Weekend Warriors, is one of the city’s hidden gems, which regularly attracts NBA legends and current players, Hollywood celebrities, local personalities and famous politicians looking for comradery, positive role models and an exciting game of basketball.
On June 23, however, the driving force behind this group nearly came to a halt when Harris suffered a massive heart attack on the court, after playing in the final game of the day.
Fortunately, Chicago Police Officer Binyamin Jones was also on the court and prepared to save Harris’ life using CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).
“[Harris] is very lucky to be alive. The only reason he survived is because [Jones] knew CPR and had the presence of mind to keep chest compressions going until paramedics arrived with more sophisticated equipment,” says Harris’ physician, Dr. Marlon Everett, a cardiologist at Advocate Trinity Hospital in Chicago.
CPR to the Rescue
When Harris suffered a heart attack and fell to the ground, several players believed he had either fainted or tripped and twisted his ankle. But Jones knew better.
“I knew it wasn’t a twisted ankle. When I heard [Harris] hit the floor, it was like dead weight. It wasn’t a controlled fall,” Jones explains.
Relying on instruction he received during his Police Academy training in 2010, Jones started chest compressions immediately. Jones administered chest compressions continuously for approximately 10 minutes until an ambulance arrived and transported Harris to Advocate Trinity Hospital. There he received heart stent surgery, which removed a 100 percent blockage of a coronary artery, and landed Harris under Dr. Everett’s care.
Recognizing the signs
At the onset of his heart attack, Harris remembers “feeling a little warm” then fighting to get up from his fall. “In my mind, I felt like I was in a room…like I was dreaming and I couldn’t get out,” he says.
Although heart disease runs in his family, Harris believed he was safe from heart troubles because he exercised three times a week, avoided eating red meat and his diet consisted mainly of vegetables, chicken and fish, with the exception of a frequent indulgence in French fries.
“Many people believe that being in good shape can prevent a heart episode. But in my career I’ve heard of three men dying on a basketball court,” Dr. Everett says, adding that his former college basketball coach died on a basketball court.
Harris ignored warning signs that a heart attack was in his near future – in Harris’ case, a mild shortness of breath and three months of unexplained indigestion. “You make any excuse in the world not to see the doctor. That’s what men do. There’s a lesson behind that”, Harris says.
The first lesson, according to Dr. Everett, is to see your doctor annually and whenever you notice small changes in your health. “We all know that eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking are important to our heart health. But knowing where you fall on the spectrum for having high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, requires that you see a health professional regularly,” Dr. Everett says.
High blood pressure (40 percent), high cholesterol (30 percent) and diabetes (13.2 percent), impact the African-American community in large numbers and can each increase your risk for a heart attack. As a result, African Americans are at risk for heart attacks. This is why Harris, Jones and Dr. Everett are spreading the word to everyone – especially the basketball community – to take heed of the second lesson: learn CPR.
Harris, Jones and Dr. Everett continue to share a love for playing the game of basketball and are partnering with Advocate Trinity Hospital to host a September 30 CPR training course for basketball players and the community following the regularly-scheduled Saturday morning pick-up games at the Chicago Park District’s Foster Park. QUESTIONS, CONTACT CASSIE RICHARDSON AT firstname.lastname@example.org.