The Golfer Who Died And Came Back To Life
Photo by Hugh Kretschmer
Lightning won't strike the same place twice, but what about a higher force? If one exists, it'd be hard to say it hasn't taken some swings at the third hole at Kennett Square Golf & Country Club near Philadelphia.
There, during three months in 2012, a straightforward, slightly elevated tee box to a downhill par-3 green, framed by two bunkers and a backdrop of oak, transformed into a stage for the unfurling of all life's tragedy and comedy. Vic Dupuis, now 57 and still playing to an 8, can't get to the third tee without taking a moment. He just stares at the ground.
"When you tell people the story, they just look at you and say no way. But it's true. I was there to witness all of it," says Jeff Hollander, a member for 25 years and the father of the current women's club champion.
It was a July Friday, and Dupuis—normally an outgoing and positive person—was harried from battling traffic returning from a business meeting in Harrisburg. He wolfed a turkey wrap in his car and ran to the first tee with shoes untied. His oldest daughter was moving to a new apartment, and he felt conflicted about not being there to help. But he'd committed to a partner, his neighbor Tom Henry, to play in The Devil's, a much-ritualized club event featuring six holes of alternate shot, six holes of scramble and six of better ball (6-6-6). Dupuis apologized to his partner for his uncharacteristic state, for there was a not-insignificant pot up for grabs. But the agitated financial advisor appeared to settle, sinking a slippery 15-footer for bird on No. 2. In almost all other possible worlds, it would've been the last golf shot of his life.
Kennett's halfway house is really a quarter-house, as the routing passes it four times. The first look comes after the second hole. You then cross a road to get to the third tee.
"The last thing I remember is walking out of the restroom, sweating," Dupuis says. "My thought was, I've never been this hot on my golf course." He sat in the cart's passenger side, crossed the road, and at the third tee rested there while the rest of his group got out and gabbed, the logjam on the first par 3 predictable in events like this.
At first, no one noticed Dupuis die. When you stop breathing and have no pulse, the complete cessation of brain activity isn't far behind. Henry glanced at the cart and saw Dupuis' head back, his eyes oddly fixed.
"My first thought was, he was sleeping," Henry says. After a good-natured taunt got no response, his partner's earlier complaint of mild indigestion now clicked as a major harbinger. Henry, a burly man, immediately pulled Dupuis from the cart and began pounding his chest. Henry didn't have CPR training, but his twin teenage boys had been recertified just weeks earlier. On the pick-up from the YMCA pool, they'd given Dad a decently thorough explanation. "I'm hitting hard, screaming at him to Come back! and all I can think about are his four kids," Henry says. "Vic's too young. They're too young."
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Paul Dittmer—the remaining member of the foursome—called 911 as Hollander sped away in the cart. Back at the halfway house was a wall-mounted AED (automated external defibrillator) and the last sighting of William Ashton, M.D., whom they'd watched tee off on 17. Hollander delivered the AED, then went for Ashton. For more than a decade, in his car, at home and in his golf bag, Doc Ashton has stored a syringe of epinephrine. Not an EpiPen, but a more powerful dose for cardiac emergencies. He'd never used any of these. Never removed the box. It was just something an anesthesiologist like him did.
In the second fairway, Lee Russell wondered why play had stalled. He couldn't see the crowd of 30 around the third tee, but did he hear shouting? A fistfight? That bizarre notion dissipated the moment he arrived and saw the row of stricken golfers relieving one another of the physical agony of compressing Vic Dupuis' chest (effective CPR is performed at 100 beats per minute, or about the same tempo of the Bee Gees' song "Stayin' Alive"). Most onlookers were frozen, not knowing what to do other than maybe cry and say, "Vic's gone."
"His face was navy blue," Ashton says. Speaking about the realities of medicine and statistics and death, you get the sense this doctor has never used hyperbole in his life. "By a traditional definition, he was dead. We were attempting to reverse it."
Unable to find a vein, Ashton stuck the syringe under the tongue, the next-fastest way to infuse the drug. He repositioned the electrode pads of the AED on the chest. Each charge nearly lifted Dupuis' 210-pound body off the third tee.
Kennett Square's head pro at the time, Tom Carpus, had played a tournament that morning at another course and was driving back when he saw the ambulances and commotion. "When you consider the configuration of our course, it was very lucky it happened where it did. There are so many holes where he would've been a lot farther from the defibrillator, far from a spot where the ambulances could drive right up and, of course, Doc Ashton."
That Dupuis took his first breath in 10 minutes, that his color changed from purple to red to dark pink, that he then opened his eyes and said, "What's going on?" even though he has no memory of it, isn't a miracle. That comes later. But for the story to make sense, we need to pick it up at Chester County Hospital, where Dupuis' wife, Faith, was driving after listening to a series of increasingly frantic voicemails from Henry. What happened there is almost crushingly mundane. Dupuis didn't report walking toward any white light or tunnels. Awaking a bit groggy to the familiar sight of his wife of 29 years, he asked her to call his assistant to cancel the appointment he'd intended on making after golf.
"I love you, too, honey," she said.
A former nurse, Faith wasn't surprised when the cardiac-catheterization test for her husband, who maintained a balanced diet and drank moderately, returned as only 10-percent blocked. As in, nowhere near clogged enough to cause a heart attack. Over the weekend, as the blisters on his chest caused by the waves of electric current began to subside, the prevailing diagnosis was that severe dehydration on a hot day had caused this golfer to faint. Faith wasn't buying it, and on Monday morning she expressed her skepticism to fresh personnel. Dr. Clay Warnick agreed the case warranted more investigation and even suspected, correctly, a far rarer thing.
Sarcoidosis is a collection of inflamed white-blood cells that collect in little lumps called granulomas. More often they're found in the lungs or skin, and just as often there are no, or only mild, symptoms. But when one migrates to the heart, it's a deadly matter. At the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania—where Dupuis was transferred by ambulance despite the mischievous and nearly successful attempt of a male nurse with whom he'd bonded over Penn State football to secure him a helicopter—he'd spend a week awaking each morning with a team of doctors and students alert at the foot of his bed. "We only ever get to study cardiac sarcoidosis in cadavers" was a line Dupuis heard too many times. He and Faith discussed laminating a synopsis of his account to show new medical staff who always asked, "Please explain to me how you're alive."
What most concerned Dupuis was the prohibition against swinging a golf club for 90 days, lest his newly installed pacemaker not settle right. Every country club has its "mayor," and the gregarious Dupuis had earned the nickname at Kennett for making things happen wherever he stepped on the property, be it at the golf course, tennis courts, pool, and the men's and mixed grills. Staying away in the glory of late summer was hard. As soon as he was able, he started coming to the club to chip and putt. He also went back to work, and five weeks after his cardiac arrest, he sipped one glass of cabernet.
Carpus, the head pro, felt for the guy. So he said, "Come on, Vic, let's get you fit for a new set of irons." Swinging isn't the only requirement for a custom-fitting, so the two killed a playable afternoon paying extra-persnickety attention to lies, lengths and grips.
"It was important to capitalize on his excitement about playing again. Give him something meaningful to look forward to," says Carpus, who recently became a rules official on the PGA Tour Champions. In all, he worked 20 seasons at Kennett Square, all of them close with Dupuis.
"Vic was the chairman of our junior golf committee for 19 years. He's the kind of guy who's always giving back and volunteering," Carpus says. "When I tell Vic's story, people think it ends there." With a new set of clubs. Or with the dinner party Dupuis threw at a local orchard to thank everyone who had played a part in saving his life.
Dupuis returned to golf the first day he was permitted, which happened to be an unseasonably warm one in November. Unwrapping the plastic from his new set of Ping i20s couldn't be performed without a sense of ceremony, but everything else about the day was loose.
Several of his closest golf buddies were playing in—ironically, if you choose to see it that way—a memorial paddle tournament for a former member. Despite that draw, the first tee was packed. So Dupuis and two others snuck off No. 10. Walking off this first hole, whom did they see teeing off No. 9? None other than Ashton.
"I had seen everybody since the event except Doc Ashton, so that was an emotional intersection," Dupuis says. After a long hug, the doctor removed a syringe from his golf bag, raised it for them all to behold, and said, "Don't worry, Vic, I've reloaded!"
Maybe because Dupuis was free from three months of negative swing thoughts, or maybe just because, he played a decent nine holes. At the turn, they picked up Hollander, who'd finished his paddle match early. Given the routing, Dupuis shouldn't have been surprised for the reencounter. Still, it was eerie passing Ashton on the 17th tee as they drove across the road to the third. The doc back in place like it was all happening again.
Dupuis asks Hollander to show him. "Right here," Hollander says, and points to a spot of rough on the bank of the box, a few paces up from dead middle. "That's where you were lying." Dupuis presses. He needs to know more. Needs to know everything. Who was standing where? What was the exact sequence of events? But more happened in that eternity than can be reliably relayed.
All Hollander can say is, "Your first breath was the greatest relief I have ever felt in my life. In my mind, I had just seen you die." Hollander doesn't dwell on what happened next, at least not in this first retelling.
Tom Henry will say it later. "The ambulance has taken Vic away, the crowd has dispersed, and the three of us are standing there. Vic is with the people he needs to be. For us, it's either go drink all afternoon in the bar or keep playing. I told Jeff [Hollander] and Paul [Dittmer] I'd be their marker for the tournament. So we teed off."
Everyone bogeyed the par-3 third, understandably, but then the duo of Hollander/Dittmer had a red-hot card the rest of the way and won The Devil's. "I feel a little guilty about that," Hollander can now joke, "but to keep playing was the right thing."
Months later, all's well that ends perfect: 162 yards with a slightly helping breeze, Dupuis knows it's a 6-iron. Always better to be short than long on this green. Plus, he hasn't hit the 6 yet. Not this 6. Ever.
When it's in the air, Hollander says one word: "Perfect."
Two hops and in.
"I should've retired that 6-iron then and there, because I haven't hit it anywhere near as pure since," Dupuis says.
There's yelling. And expletives. Dupuis falls flat to his back, and from the obscured vantage of the 17th tee, Ashton has a dreadful thought: Not again. But it flips when he sees the high-fives. These shouts of "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" are for something wonderful. They call the golf shop, and the word spreads. The remaining six holes are a blur. When the group reaches the 19th hole, there's a crowd waiting unlike any other.
"It happened to be a busy day at the club, and so everyone is in there, yet we walk into a room of total silence," Hollander remembers. "Everyone was in awe. People kept asking me, 'Did Vic really get a hole-in-one on 3?' "
As the hole-in-one insurance is claimed and reclaimed, again and again, the men's grill turns boisterous. Doc Ashton, scotch in hand, gets a glint in his eye followed by a loss for words. "To come back for the first time to the hole he died on and make a hole-in-one, and with a brand-new club, well . . ."
Dupuis has attended church all his life. Sometimes it can be impossible to believe in God more than one already does. "He's not a changed person. He's just more himself," Faith says. "He's always been a glass-half-full kind of a person. Since the event, we both like to say his cup runneth over."
"My belief is that the great fisher of men threw me back, and that he has an incredible sense of humor to add a hole-in-one," Dupuis says. "But if I've come to realize anything, it's that the people around me were most affected. They had to watch me die." One witness quit smoking that day. Another had AEDs installed at each of his four business locations. More than 50 members have since taken CPR training. What can't be counted is how many appreciate life with greater preciousness.
Every year on the last Friday of July, the anniversary of his "death," Dupuis plays with the same foursome of Henry, Hollander and Dittmer. On the third tee, he has the club leave champagne on ice. The tradition started with one bottle and four glasses, but more and more members have requested to join the celebration, so now there's a case.
If there is anyone who can raise a glass and not believe there is a higher force, then theirs is half empty.
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