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Home / On Sports / Like Buffalo Bills survivor Damar Hamlin, a local coaching icon gets second shot at life

Like Buffalo Bills survivor Damar Hamlin, a local coaching icon gets second shot at life

Ory Mee had just completed his morning jog — a pleasant 20-minute jaunt through the tree-lined streets of suburban Charlotte, N.C. — and headed upstairs to take a shower. After reaching the second floor of his son Ryan’s duplex, he took three steps toward the bathroom, then collapsed backwards to the floor. The Hilton High School baseball coaching legend has no recollection of what transpired during the six days after his head thudded against the floor. They remain a total blank.

“The next memory I had was a nurse asking me if I could lift my leg — which I did,’’ he recalled. “And after that, I slowly but surely was able to get back to living a full life again.”

Mee, 74, had suffered cardiac arrest that first day of February in 2018, and thanks to some heroic work by first responders and some extraordinarily good timing and luck, he’s around to talk about it. His story has striking similarities to the one that’s captivated and inspired the nation in recent weeks — the miraculous and rapid recovery by Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin after he nearly died on the football field after suffering cardiac arrest.

“Like Damar, I was truly blessed to have my incident happen when and where it did,’’ Mee said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be speaking to you today.”

Hamlin was fortunate his cardiac arrest occurred during an NFL game, where a team of well-trained first responders quickly diagnosed his condition and took steps to revive him and get him to a nearby hospital with a trauma unit. Mee was incredibly fortunate, too. It was fortuitous that his wife, Pat, happened to arrive back at their son’s home after her walk at the same time Mee returned from his run. And his good luck continued after she phoned 911.

“It just so happened that the EMTs were having lunch at a sub shop two blocks away,’’ he said. “We’ve all learned from the Damar situation how important every second is in these situations.”

The paramedics arrived swiftly and spent the next 18 minutes administering CPR. They kept Mee functioning until they were able to apply the defibrillator which, after six attempts, shocked his heart into beating again. “I’m told it was touch-and-go, which is often the case in these situations,’’ Mee said. “They worked on me for a long time. The paddles finally jump-started my heart, and they got me to the hospital.”

He wound up being sedated for several days longer than Hamlin was, and that period of uncertainty was harrowing for Mee’s wife and their three adult children — Cory, Ryan, and Eileen. “From what I’m told, the doctors were frank with them,’’ he said. “They said, ‘’We don’t know what you’ll get back when he awakens.’ ’’

There was a chance the interruption of oxygen flow to the brain could have caused irreparable damage. Fortunately for the Mees, the husband and father they “got back” was pretty much the same person they had known before his collapse. “I feel great,’’ he said. “Occasionally, I might screw up a word here or there, but I’m pretty much back to doing everything I was doing before.”

As he walked out of the hospital that Valentine’s Day, doctors and nurses told him something similar to the “you won the game of life” response Hamlin received when he first awakened. “They said I was ‘one-in-a-million’,” Mee recalled. “A miracle, really.” A miracle he’s seen repeat itself with Hamlin. Along with millions of us, he watched that highly anticipated Bills-Cincinnati Bengals game two Monday nights ago on television. When the Buffalo safety collapsed, Mee began experiencing painful flashbacks.

“You could tell from the looks on the faces of the players and coaches that this wasn’t some twisted ankle or knee,’’ he said. “My friend, Larry Speer, was watching the game, and he immediately called and said: ‘You know what this is, don’t you?’ Unfortunately, I did.”

The next few days, were especially difficult for Mee, who prayed for Hamlin while reliving his own nightmare. When the second-year player finally regained consciousness, Mee felt an enormous sense of relief. Since then, the news has gotten better and better. After being released from hospitals in Cincinnati and Buffalo, Hamlin was able to visit his Bills teammates at Highmark Stadium last Saturday. “It’s been so uplifting,’’ Mee said. “I would love to see Damar be able to play football again.”

If Hamlin is seeking inspiration, he might find it in Mee. The doting grandfather of eight is back playing pick-up basketball and senior softball and doing all the things he did before his cardiac arrest. “I’ll never forget the look on the faces of the guys when I showed up at the gym in Brockport (in late April 2018) to play hoops after undergoing a few months of cardiac rehab,’’ Mee said. “They were saying, ‘What are you doing here? You can’t play.’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, I can. And here’s the doctor’s papers that says so.’ ’’

He paused for a moment, chuckling at the memory.

“You know, Damar obviously has a lot more going for him than I did,’’ Mee continued. “I was 69. He’s just 24 and in top physical condition. If the doctors say what happened to him was a one-in-a-million thing that likely will never happen again, what’s to stop them from allowing Damar to do something he loves again?”

Hamlin has repeatedly expressed gratitude for the outpouring of love and support he has received, and for the precious opportunity he’s been given to experience a second shot at life. Nearly five years after his mulligan, Mee feels similar feelings. He still has the hundreds of cards and letters he received from high school coaching colleagues, former players, and the guys he plays softball and hoops with and against.

One of the first things he did after regaining his health was visit the EMTs who saved his life to thank them. Each year, Mee makes a donation to their firehouse and to the Charlotte, N.C. Hospitality House that provided lodging and meals for his wife and out-of-town children when he was hospitalized.

Whenever he takes the basketball court or softball field these days, he pauses a moment to give thanks.

“I try not to take things for granted,’’ he said. “I realize I got really, really lucky. Everyday’s a great day as far as I am concerned.”

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.