Written by Brock Smith
On August 29, 2015, Eric Shannon died on the rugby pitch.
It was match just like any other for the scrum-half, then just 25 years old. A player for Balmy Beach, one of Ontario’s oldest and most successful rugby clubs, Shannon had emerged as a regular starter over the past few seasons, and was in good health.
The league game, while routine, was an important one. Shannon and his Balmy Beach teammates had traveled to Markham, Ontario, for a late-season fixture against the Aurora Barbarians at Fletcher’s Fields. With their league campaign winding down, the Toronto club was neck-and-neck with local rivals Toronto Scottish in their hunt for the top spot in the Marshall Premiership 2 division, and each point they could earn grew increasingly valuable as the season wore on.
By all accounts, it was a normal start to the match. Scoring chances were traded, but neither side had yet to pull away in what was shaping up to be a physical affair.
Then, partway through the first half, Shannon took a hit to the chest. He was struck hard, but it was just like the hundreds of other hits he’d received earlier that summer.
Except this one stopped his heart.
It wasn’t the severity of the hit that mattered. It was the fact that it had occurred at precisely the wrong time.
Shannon’s heart was caught in the split-second between systole and diastole when he was hit – a near-impossible 10-millisecond window between contraction and expansion. The result: his heart had stopped beating.
And it didn’t beat again for a panic-ridden 10 minutes.
For all intents and purposes, Shannon was dead.
If there was any hope of bringing him back, there could be no missteps. No miscues. For Shannon to be pulled back from the brink, everything had to align in his favour.
What happened next was nothing short of miraculous.
“I don’t remember anything from that game,” said Shannon.
Now almost two years later, the 27-year-old has no recollection of the events surrounding August 29, 2015, or a good chunk of time before it.
“I actually don’t even remember a full month before that game. It’s pretty crappy, because that summer was the first time I had driven all the way across Canada, and I don’t remember any of it.”
While Shannon has no memory of that day, his teammate Conor McCann can vividly recall the moments following the hit, and that something wasn’t quite right as Shannon fell face-down without putting his hands out to break his fall.
“I was on the medic table at the time, and I saw him turn around and take a few steps. I saw him take a deep breath in, and while I didn’t know it at the time, it was a sign that his body was going into shock. Then he fell.”
McCann, a McCormick Cup-winning centre for Balmy Beach and former Canada under-20 standout, is now a firefighter with Toronto Fire Services. At the time, he had been training for his firefighter testing, but had no idea how quickly his preparations were going to be put to the test.
While warming up for his first-team match, scheduled to be played later that afternoon, McCann and the team trainer ran over to Shannon, where they discovered Shannon was experiencing signs of agonal breathing, an abnormal pattern of breathing characterized by gasping, laboured breaths – the body’s last-ditch effort to deliver oxygen to the vital organs.
“We decided we had to turn him over and check him out to see what was going on.”
At the same time, someone on the sidelines had called to Balmy Beach captain Haydn Gage in the team’s dressing room. Gage, a seasoned Toronto firefighter, rushed out to help McCann. By this point, Shannon had stopped breathing altogether; the duo immediately began performing CPR.
“I started doing chest compressions, and Haydn went toward breathing for him. We had another member of our club, Toni Wodzicki, run into the Fletcher’s Fields clubhouse to grab the defibrillator.”
At this point, people were beginning to gather around, and panic was setting in amongst the crowd.
“We got the defibrillator on him. It obviously recommended a shock. We shocked him once. Nothing.
“We shocked him twice. Again, nothing.
“We kept going through CPR, keeping our focus as a crowd had gathered, with everyone trying to figure out what the hell was going on.”
It took three shocks, but McCann and Gage were able to reset Shannon’s heart and his pulse returned.
“We ended up shocking him a third time, which is pretty unheard of. It’s far from the norm. And it was the third shock when we were able to get him back. We continued chest compressions until the paramedics arrived.”
Shannon was rushed from the field to Sunnybrook Hospital and put into a medically-induced coma for four days.
From discussions with family, friends, and teammates over the past two years, Shannon has been able to cobble together the events from that afternoon. He’s learned how he was brought back to life, against all odds.
“I think there was a quick discussion between some of my teammates of whether my back had been broken, but when Conor and Haydn noticed I wasn’t breathing right away, they made CPR their priority, which was absolutely the right thing to do.
“If they hadn’t started CPR right away…” Shannon pauses for a few moments, as if to wonder what may have been had it not been for his teammates’ quick thinking. “It was such a long period of time until I was brought back, those 10 minutes. If I wasn’t getting that oxygen for that amount of time, there could have been much more damage to my brain. It was huge that they reacted so quickly. I can’t even begin to tell you how lucky I am.”
That luck manifested itself in three major ways that afternoon.
Firstly, the defibrillator that McCann and Gage used on Shannon was only installed at Fletcher’s Fields stadium a few months earlier, when the Markham rugby field was used as a training ground for the 2015 Pan Am Games.
“That was obviously a huge stroke of luck right there, because if this had happened the season before, or at any time before 2015, Eric would have died. He wouldn’t have had a chance,” says McCann.
Secondly, as McCann noted, administering a third shock with a defibrillator is far from usual. But had Gage and McCann been on-duty as firefighters when this had occurred, chances are they may not have issued a third shock at all.
“It’s crazy, too, because if they were on-duty, they wouldn’t have been allowed to do the final shock that ended up bringing me back,” says Shannon. “As I understand it, they would have only been allowed to issue one or two shocks, and I think it was the third one that brought me back.”
McCann feels that at that time, there may have been a directive that would have seen them continue with CPR instead of giving a third shock.
“I wouldn’t say that there’s a black and white line, but there definitely would have been some hesitancy (to give the third shock). It’s one of those things where it was a personal intuition on Haydn’s part. We just thought ‘let’s keep going.’ When it’s your good friend, you’d do anything to get him back. It ended up being a life-saving decision.”
Finally, just a few weeks prior to the accident, McCann and Gage just happened to run through the exact CPR drill that they used on Shannon, as part of McCann’s preparations for his firefighter testing.
“Haydn and I had practiced that kind of CPR earlier that August, because I was doing my firefighter testing at the time. We had actually been in sync a couple of weeks before on a practice dummy, which was…” McCann pauses and nervously chuckles. “You can’t help but to laugh at the coincidence of it all, because the real thing happened two weeks later when it was still fresh in our memory. We were able to work really well together.”
The proverbial stars aligned; a life was saved.
“Looking back on it, you can’t help but say ‘wow.’ It’s pretty unbelievable how things just happened so quickly, but they happened in the right way, because if there was one wrong step…” McCann pauses to swallow, seeming to not want to imagine an alternate ending. “When you have a situation that that’s critical, everything has to be bang-on.
“It was pretty special to see all the boys work together: like Toni who ran inside, Haydn who came out, and myself and the trainer who were all working on him. We were all helping each other out. It wasn’t one person dictating the others, it was a group effort.
“Everything fell perfectly into place, and if one thing was off, who knows what the situation would have been?”
Upon arriving at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital that afternoon, doctors kept Shannon in an induced coma for the better part of four days. He was placed in an ice-bed to keep his blood pressure and temperature low – he had a fever exceeding 104°F – as they monitored him and made sure he could breathe on his own.
Miraculously, he showed no sign of lasting damage – not just an absence of a neck or spinal injury, but he managed to even avoid a single broken rib from the CPR.
“I was only in the hospital for the same amount of time I was under the coma,” says Shannon. “It was the afternoon after I had woken up that I was released. It was only a few days. The doctors told me there was no point in me being there anymore. I was walking around, talking, and to be honest with you, I just wanted to get out of there, too.”
Shannon’s recovery was shockingly fast – exactly two weeks after his heart stopped, he was back on the sidelines, supporting his teammates in their push to win the league title.
“It was late in the season,” says Shannon, epitomizing the “my teammates before me” type of camaraderie so often found within the sport of rugby. “The games are so important at that time, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss those.”
The following summer, Shannon returned to the pitch, playing a few touch rugby games here and there. A few months later, he made his official return to Rugby Ontario-sanctioned rugby, playing on a touch rugby team in the Toronto-based Canada Touch Rugby league.
“I’m 100 percent OK and cleared to play. I may not not be in the same shape I was before…” he pauses for a little chuckle. “But health-wise, I have no problems. I can play.”
From both a mental and physical standpoint, Shannon feels like he’s back to being the same person he was prior to the afternoon of August 29, 2015.
“I think for a period of time, I may have been more cautious, but it’s been so long, and I’ve gotten back to my regular schedules and my regular activities, that my life hasn’t changed that drastically.
“I’m still doing a lot of the same things I was doing before. It hasn’t been that bad, and thank god for Haydn and Conor. To do what they did… they gave me the gift of living my life like I would have otherwise.”
While Shannon remains a proud member of Balmy Beach, he hasn’t been able to suit up in the club’s iconic blue and gold kit just yet. He’s recently started a signals and communications apprenticeship with Canadian Pacific Railway, which involves long hours and extensive travel for training.
“I’m hoping to play this summer at some point, but I have to figure out time for conditioning first.”
Shortly after Shannon’s release from the hospital, Balmy Beach purchased two defibrillators for the club – a portable device to take to all away matches, as well as one for their trailer at their home field in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood.
“You never really think about carrying a defibrillator in general until it happens. We are trying to push for them to be at every major venue, just due to the fact that you never know when you’re going to use it,” says McCann.
“When you need it, you really need it. It’s not like you can have a replacement for it. It’s the only thing that’s going to save you.”
In the days following August 29, 2015, McCann recalls how he and his Balmy Beach teammates have reconciled the near-death experience of a teammate. Instead of drifting apart in grief or frustration, the team has grown closer, bonding together in appreciation for the fragility of life juxtaposed against the physicality of such a sport as rugby.
“I can’t really tell you how close together it brought our whole team after that situation. I remember the weeks following the accident, with everybody so worried about him. It just shook everybody to a point where we fully appreciated the people we had around us.”
“At the end of the year, we had our big banquet, and he was there, and he was able to say a few words. It was really special. It was something that brought our club together likely nothing else would.
“We took some light out of the dark.”
Shannon echoes these sentiments, noting how the brotherhood of rugby will keep him active in the sport for life.
“I have played so many different sports at high levels, and when I came to the Beach, and I played with the boys, I felt like I was instantly part of a bigger family.
“Especially playing the in the league we play in, we usually take buses to our games, and you just get so close with the guys. You know their families, you participate in club events together, and being part of the team goes beyond just playing the sport. Rugby is a sport like no other.”
It’s that bond, that kinship, that Shannon thinks helped to save his life two summers ago.
“Rugby is a sport where we always put our teammates first. That day, Haydn, Conor, and all my teammates put me first. They had the training that they did, and the intuitions that they had, and I’m here today because of it.”