*The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Last month, as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin lay motionless on the field at Paycor Stadium after suffering a cardiac arrest, Austin Poley was all too familiar with the uncertainty that would follow the 24-year old’s collapse. He too had experienced a similar event firsthand.

But unlike Hamlin who is a conditioned professional athlete, Poley had been in training to become a counselor at Camp Copneconic in Fenton, Michigan nearly five years ago when he suffered his own cardiac arrest. He was 19 at the time and was working with his fellow counselors on missing swimmer drills, learning how to quickly locate campers that may go missing during water activities, when he suddenly collapsed on the beach.

Staff Credited for Acting Quickly

Poley credits the staff at Camp Copneconic, led by Associate Executive Director Thomas Bawden, for acting quickly and saving his life. Two shocks were administered from an automated external defibrillator, or AED, which had been donated to the facility by Tommy's Heart, The Thomas Smith Memorial Foundation.

Poley's relationship with Bawden began years before that summer day in 2018 when he collapsed on the beach.

"He was one of my counselors when I was a camper there, years and years ago," Poley recalled. "He responded to me immediately when I collapsed on the beach. At first, he thought it was low blood sugar that had caused me to faint, but then he went through all the steps, checked my pulse, and immediately started giving me CPR."

He goes on to credit Katie Comack, a Senior Program Director at the camp, who directed other staff members while calling 911 and communicating with dispatchers about his condition.

"It gives you an idea as to what a well-oiled machine they have. If I had been in any other situation or anywhere else, I'm not sure that I would have come out of it," he says. "Because they were prepared and had done so much training and preparation, they were there and able to save my life."

Austin was immediately transported to Ascension Genesys Hospital in Grand Blanc and later transferred to CS Mott Children's Hospital.

Undiagnosed Heart Condition

Austin spent two weeks in the hospital and says he was "put through every test imaginable." In fact, some doctors were doubtful he'd suffered any sort of cardiac event, citing a lack of evidence that would support any heart abnormalities.

While there was some concern that Poley may have been shocked inappropriately when he collapsed, the AED's internal recording told a different tale.

"The way the AED machine works, it takes a read on what your body is going through at the moment it's hooked up, before it administers shocks," Poley explained. "So as soon as they saw what the AED had recorded, they knew my heart had stopped and that I was in V-Fib."

Austin now sees a cardiologist on a regular basis. He says that because doctors were unable to pinpoint a cause for the incident, his condition has been termed an “Idiopathic Cardiac Arrest.”

Importance of Testing

Poley now lives in Grass Lake, just east of Jackson, and serves as a part-time football coach for East Jackson High School. He's currently taking online classes and expects to graduate from Central Michigan University in August 2023.

He encourages all young people to have a heart screening. The Thomas Smith Memorial Foundation recommends heart screening for all children between 13 and 19 years of age and has provided free screenings to more than 3,500 teens over the last 10 years. The organization has also donated about 35 AED machines to youth-centered facilities.

Poley says that incidents like his, and Damar Hamlin's unforeseen cardiac arrest serve as a reminder of how important it is for young people to be tested.

"I've seen an increase in the number of kids going and getting tested. I think that just comes back to the awareness of 'hey, this is something that you need to do to be serious about your health,'" he said. "Getting screened, getting tested, and looking for any indication that you might have something not quite right [with your health]."

February is American Heart Month, a time when Americans are encouraged to focus on their cardiovascular health. Young people in Mid-Michigan are encouraged to take advantage of free heart screening opportunities sponsored by the Thomas Smith Memorial Foundation.


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