How an unlikely team of N.J. heroes, including a CO, saved a fallen rugby star’s life

When a fellow player collapsed on the field, CO Will Kimball — along with five others on the sidelines — fortunately knew what to do


By Steve Politi
nj.com
        
DENVILLE, N.J. — Tevita Bryce dropkicked the rugby ball over a scrum of players, took a few wobbly steps and crumbled to the pitch. He is a 6-foot-1, 285-pound native Tongan who usually needs two or three tacklers to drag him to the ground.

Now he had fallen without even being touched. Now he was face down on the turf, shaking uncontrollably.

“Medic!” a teammate called out.

Tevita Bryce with his family. Bryce is alive today thanks to the quick thinking of six people on the sidelines, who used their emergency medical training when he collapsed on the field.
Tevita Bryce with his family. Bryce is alive today thanks to the quick thinking of six people on the sidelines, who used their emergency medical training when he collapsed on the field. (Courtesy Ashley Bryce)

“This is serious!” another shouted.

“HURRY!” another screamed.

In an instant, a routine playoff game between rival amateur teams from Morristown and Montclair had gone haywire. Someone had to do something. Fast.

Diana Stavrou sprinted from her spot on the sideline. She has treated concussions, broken bones and even spinal-cord injuries in her 16 years as an athletic trainer. As soon as she arrived at the fallen player’s side, she knew this was the biggest emergency of her career.

Thanks to a remarkable set of circumstances — and a heavy dose of good luck — she would not face it alone.

Including the players, there were about 200 people gathered at Denville’s Pocono Road Field Saturday afternoon. Two had law-enforcement backgrounds and extensive CPR training. Two others were nurses, including one with four decades of experience treating trauma patients. Another was an off-duty trainer who plays for the Morris women’s rugby team.

Six people, some of whom had never met, gathered around the fallen body of this 28-year-old husband and father. They fell into roles as if they had worked together for years as they tried to save a stranger’s life.

“He’s dead! This can’t be happening. He’s too young!” Ashley Bryce, the man’s wife, said between sobs as she ran onto the field.

She was trying to push her way through a crowd to get near her husband, but one of the six first responders held her back with stern words of reassurance.

“Let these people help your husband,” Michelle Armonda, the off-duty trainer who works in the Watchung Hills school district, told her. “Trust me. They know what they’re doing.”

A rugby star of ‘pure muscle’

A minute before, Will Kimball, the starting 8-man for Morris Rugby, followed the ball as Bryce’s clearance kick sailed through the air.

At 5-10 and 180 pounds, Kimball loves tackling bigger players. Bryce, though, was different. “Pure muscle,” Kimball said, remembering how the newcomer was such a force the first time his team faced Montclair. He wondered: Where did they get this guy?

That, it turns out, was quite a story.

Bryce, while born in Tonga, had grown up in rugby-mad New Zealand. He embraced the sport as a school kid, earned a rugby scholarship at Rissho University in Saitama, Japan, and was good enough to play for a professional team called the Akita Northern Bullets.

That’s where he met Ashley, a California native who was visiting the country. They fell in love, and after trying the long-distance thing, he got his green card. Two days after they married in 2019, Tevita had to move back to New Zealand to care for his mother, who had terminal colon cancer. The couple settled in Totowa in July to be close to Ashley’s family, now based in New York — and Montclair Rugby had its new star.

He looked poised to carry his new team to victory, too, in its biggest game of the season. Montclair, down seven, had the momentum. Then Bryce hit the ground before his kick did. The action on the field stopped immediately.

Kimball ran to the scene.

“Everyone, let’s clear the area,” Kimball told the onlookers. He is a corrections officer at the Somerset County Jail, a job that requires extensive training in handling medical emergencies. He knew that bystanders — even the well-meaning ones — could do more harm than good.

He knelt near Stavrou at Bryce’s side. Seconds later, so did another teammate, Bobby Tucker, who was inactive but watching from the sidelines. Tucker is a former Denville police officer. Both men explained to the trainer that they knew CPR and wanted to help. After calming Ashley Bryce a few yards away, Armonda joined them.

They turned Bryce onto his side. Tucker checked for a pulse as Stavrou checked for breathing.

Nothing.

From 30 yards away, Tess Feury grabbed her mother’s arm.

“Mom, it looks like he’s blacked out,” she said.

“Let the trainers do their jobs,” K.J. Feury replied.

The Feury family is rugby royalty in Morris County. Tom Feury, the patriarch, learned the sport at Rutgers and founded a youth program in the county. Jake and Blaze, his sons, starred for Morris Rugby, and Tess is a fullback for the U.S. women’s team. K.J. is the only Feury who didn’t play the sport, but she is a fixture at games, president of Rugby New Jersey.

What mattered in this moment is this: K.J. Feury has worked as a nurse practitioner at Morristown Medical Center for 30 years. Tess Feury is a registered nurse in the same hospital’s pediatric intensive-care unit.

And their eyes opened wide when they saw what was now happening on the field.

“Mom, they’re doing chest compressions,” Tess said.

“Let’s go!” K.J. replied, and they sprinted to the scene.

Thirty compressions, two breaths

Someone called 911. Stavrou, Tucker and Kimball turned Bryce onto his back and started CPR. The Feurys arrived and, after a quick introduction, K.J. Feury used a calm, even tone to direct the new team.

In some ways, she had been preparing her entire life for this moment. She was the one who, as a leader for Morris Rugby, insisted that a trainer attend every game. She was the one who made sure those trainers brought an automated external defibrillator, the device commonly called an AED that has saved so many lives at sporting events, in case of emergencies. Morris is the only New Jersey rugby program that currently requires them.

That AED was sitting on a table on the sideline. Stavrou sent a spectator to retrieve it as the six first responders went to work.

Stavrou started chest compressions, and when she began to tire, K.J. Feury took over, and then Tess Feury, and then they rotated again. Kimball and Tucker tilted Bryce’s head back as Armonda used a valve mask to fill his lungs with air.

Thirty compressions.

Two breaths.

Thirty compressions.

Two breaths.

Tucker and Kimball used scissors to cut off Bryce’s mud-caked rugby shirt. They applied the AED pads to his bare chest and saw the reading — “SHOCK ADVISED” — so all six pulled back as the machine sent an electric charge to his heart.

It worked. Bryce had a pulse and was showing signs of agonal breathing, a natural gasping response by the body when it is not getting enough oxygen during cardiac arrest. The crowd, sensing a breakthrough, let out a cathartic cheer.

Tess Feury knew better.

“Oh no,” she thought. “Don’t cheer yet. We’re far from done.”

The pulse vanished. They started CPR again, and a few minutes later, used the AED to give Bryce another shock. As they worked, other Morris players and spectators began moving cars and clearing a path for the police and the EMTs.

Saint Clare’s Hospital was a half mile away in Denville, but the onlookers were leaving nothing to chance.

They ran into the street to direct a squad car and then, a few minutes later, an ambulance up the dirt path to the scene.

Tucker, the former Denville cop, knew the arriving officers and quickly brought them up to speed. They worked with the first responders until Bryce was loaded onto the ambulance. When the doors closed, the vehicle began to gently rock.

The EMTs were beginning CPR. Again.

The six first responders stood with the other spectators and players as the ambulance pulled away. They didn’t know if Tevita Bryce would live or die. They couldn’t see the moment when it became clear their efforts had not been in vain.

This was before Bryce flatlined twice in surgery, when doctors discovered that a blood clot had traveled from his groin to his heart.

This was before he and his wife, with an 18-month boy, began to face the reality of medical bills without health insurance. His benefits have not kicked in from a new construction job.

This was before, just three days after he arrived at the hospital, those six first responders heard the news that Bryce had returned home to continue his recovery — phone calls and text messages that elicited disbelieving but grateful tears.

This was in that ambulance. The star rugby player who just moments before lay crumbled on that turf without a heartbeat opened his eyes. He then asked one of the EMTs a simple question.

“Who won the game?”

For information on how to help the Bryce family with its medical bills, visit its GoFundMe page.

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2021 Corrections1. All rights reserved.