Heartfelt Thanks for a Life Saved

November 13, 2012

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

ELSIE – Like many who have played high school football, the practice field will always be more than just another piece of lawn to Ovid-Elsie’s Chris Fowler.

Over his right shoulder, beyond a few of the fields that surround his high school, sits his family’s house. To his left is the finish to the school’s cross country course his younger sister was preparing to run the day his heart stopped beating.

In this spot, on Oct. 9, the 16-year-old Fowler collapsed while he and his teammates ran 40-yard sprints. His heart, for reasons doctors could not explain, went into an irregular rhythm that caused him to go into cardiac arrest.

“It still doesn’t (make sense),” Fowler said two weeks later. “I try to forget it as much as I can. It’s not worth remembering. I don’t want to think about it.”

But the Marauders sophomore will always remember those who brought him back to life that day.

Thanks to the quick, calm response of Ovid-Elsie football coach Travis Long and his staff, and the speedy work of athletic director Sonya Latz to retrieve the school’s AED device, Fowler’s heart was shocked back to life.  

Unlike too many national news stories lately of athletes who died far too soon of similar circumstances, this story ends well.

Fowler’s father Dave knows it is because every detail was carried out to perfection. Standing near the cross country finish line, he was there to watch it all.

“Truthfully,” Dave said, “I thought it was the end of my world.”

Trying to remember, trying to forget

Both father and son knew the story of Fennville’s Wes Leonard, who died from sudden cardiac arrest after making the game-winning shot in a basketball game March 3, 2011.

They hadn’t heard of the all-state football and basketball player before that day, but Dave began following the story as it became national news and spurred an effort to have AEDs in every school. 

AED stands for automated external defibrillator. The device combats sudden cardiac arrest by detecting an irregular heart beat and delivering a shock that can put the heart back into correct rhythm. Ovid-Elsie High School has two. The first was purchased through the Kimberly Anne Gillary Foundation, which was started after Gillary, a student at Troy Athens, died of sudden cardiac arrest during a water polo game in 2000. The second was donated by alum and former basketball player Daryl Melvin, now a cardiologist in Lansing.  

Chris remembers reading about Leonard’s death the day after and thinking there was no way it could happen again to someone like him.

Dave Fowler recounts in his head daily how it nearly did.

The image he can’t get out of his mind is that of Chris’ coaches flipping him over and starting chest compressions.

“It’s just like it was unreal. It was like a bad dream I was waiting to wake up from,” Dave said.

Chris remembers none of it.

He’s a strong student who even before this was considering becoming a doctor. He’s the middle child of three – sister Maria graduated in the spring, and Morgan is in eighth grade. Basketball is Chris’ favorite sport, and he also played soccer growing up – but frequently was carded for running over opponents.

So logically, in eighth grade, he gave football a try. Two years later, at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, Fowler was a starting offensive tackle on the varsity.

The Marauders’ Oct. 9 practice was dedicated to defense. Fowler took a shot to the ankle and rolled it, and remembers mentioning it to quarterback Jake Helms. That was probably about 25 minutes before the team began its daily conditioning, a set of 20 short sprints run at half to three-quarters speed.

Dave watched his son run while waiting for Morgan’s race to begin. Her mom Amy was at the starting line, and their grandparents also were in attendance, part of a larger crowd because the cross country jamboree included multiple teams from all eight schools in Ovid-Elsie’s league.

And then shock. “I knew what was going on,” Dave said. “But it was denial that I was really seeing what I was seeing.”

Call to quick action

Suddenly, Chris was face down on the ground.

Only moments later, Long and assistant Brad Sutliff were flipping him over. Long, a physical education teacher at the school, began the chest compressions. Another coach blew breaths into Fowler’s lungs.

Dave, perhaps acting on instinct as much as anything, yelled for anyone to find his wife. He took off toward Latz, who also had made her way to the cross country finish area, yelling for her to get the AED.

Word of Fowler's dire situation quickly made its way through the crowd. The Bullock Creek cross country team, surely among many others, began to pray. And Dave will never forget watching Chris’ teammates, standing a short way off, yell at him, “Don’t give up! Keep fighting!”

Latz, in the school’s Mule utility vehicle, raced to the trainer’s room, grabbed the AED and raced back. A parent from another school who is a nurse asked if she could help and took the AED to the coaches, who connected it to Fowler.

The AED gives the user explicit instructions on how to operate it, including where to attach connections and when to step away as to avoid also receiving a shock.

Sutliff was holding Fowler’s head and didn't want to set it down. But he had to – the shock was so strong it lifted Fowler’s body off the ground.

The jolt also reset his heart.

The next thing Fowler remembers, he was in the ambulance on the way to Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, vomiting. And he couldn't see. He flashed his hand in front of his face, trying to find it. It was then that he found out his heart had stopped.

After a night at Sparrow, Fowler  was taken to the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Hospital, where he spent five days. Fowler went through the battery of tests. No problems were found. The family doesn't have a history of heart trouble. Doctors said there were no blockages.

“They said basically that it’s a miracle. There are no side effects, none whatsoever,” Dave Fowler said. “No heart damage, no organ damage. The neurologist said his brain function is perfect; there’s nothing wrong with it. And they all say that stems from the quick reaction from the coaches. … The doctor said he’s never seen chest compressions done that well.”

Ovid-Elsie has a disaster plan in place for situations like these, but had never had to put it into play for a life-threatening situation as long as Latz has been part of the athletic staff – dating back to her first year coaching in 1989.  

It went off without a hitch. The whole process of starting compressions, retrieving and hooking up the AED and restarting Fowler’s heart took maybe a bit more than five minutes.

“The coaching staff is amazing, how smooth and calm everybody kept just to do their jobs. I’m just amazed,” Latz added. “I shouldn't say ‘amazed.’ Because I trust that they are very good. I’m just proud of the way they handled everything.”

She added that Ovid-Elsie’s National Honors Society has asked about raising funds to purchase an AED for a school that doesn't have one.

Many thanks to give

Fowler wears two bracelets he received while at U-M. One reads “Hearts working together,” and the other “And the beat goes on.” He was considering becoming a neurologist some day, but now cardiology seems pretty cool.

Fowler’s friends don’t ask much about that day. They know he’s trying to block it out of his memory. But others do ask the “ridiculous questions. Like, you know, what did it feel like to be dead?”

His response: “I just say I wasn't getting oxygen to my brain, so I don’t remember anything.”

The questions don’t make him angry. It’s easy to figure out quickly that Fowler is the type to let such things just roll off.

When Fowler does hear his story re-told, he feels like it’s about someone else.  

But he’s a smart guy, and he’s heard enough doctor talk to understand what’s going on.

The biggest bummer is he can’t play basketball. His career in contact spots is over. That leaves golf, and he might take it up eventually. This winter, he’s going to be on the bench with his varsity teammates and he’ll help with the freshmen team and perhaps Morgan’s eighth-grade team too.

He still sounds like a football player. “It’s a lame scar,” he said of the small cut under the front of his left shoulder. Embedded in a “pocket” under his skin on the left side of his chest is an implantable cardioverter defibrillator – or ICD – meant to automatically shock his heart back into rhythm if it falls out of beat again.

Fowler came back for a football practice before the Marauders season ended, and also for the parents’ night game. He’ll still be part of that program next year too. “The joke around town is I’ll be the offensive coordinator,” Fowler said.

Dave still asks himself the what-ifs of that day. He looks at his family differently. Too many times during the day he pictures those chest compressions. It’s hard for him to leave home, and he doesn't sleep well. And he’s pretty sure Chris is getting tired of his parents peeking into his room at night to make sure all is well.

Perhaps. But Fowler also has never been one to take anything for granted – although that’s another part of what makes this situation tough. He’s always one to show gratitude, but he can’t remember right now all the people he’d like to thank. He’s just doing his best.

“I can’t remember. There are so many people. I saw some people at the football game, and I just walked up and said thank you,” Fowler said. “Because they were there, praying for me or whatever.

“I’m very fortunate. It’s unbelievable.” 

Click to see more from the Wes Leonard Heart Team or the Kimberly Anne Gillary Foundation

NOTE: Chris Fowler's parents Dave and Amy would like to give special thanks to those pictured with their son (in suit and orange shoes) above: athletic director Soni Latz and football coaches Brad Sutliff, Eric Jones, Jeremy Palus, Cody Staley, Travis Long and Dustin Thiel.

PHOTOS: (Top) Chris Fowler stands in the place on Ovid-Elsie's practice field where coaches worked to restart his heart on Oct. 9. (Middle) Fowler, in his game jersey, stands on Ovid-Elsie's football field. (Bottom two photos courtesy of the Fowler family.)

Retired Official Gives Alpena AD New Life with Donated Kidney - 'Something I Had to Do'

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

May 3, 2024

TAWAS CITY – Jon Studley woke up Feb. 20 with a lot of fond memories on his mind, which turned into a collection of 47 photos posted to Facebook showing how he’d lived a fuller life over the past year with Dan Godwin’s kidney helping power his body.

There was Studley at the beach, taking a sunset shot with wife Shannon and their 5-year-old daughter Maizy. In others Dad and daughter are at the ice rink, making breakfast and hitting pitches in the yard. Studley made it to Ford Field to cheer on the Lions, supported his Alpena High athletes at MHSAA Finals and traveled to Orlando for a national athletic directors conference.

Their faces are beaming, a far cry from much of 2021 and 2022 and the first few months of 2023 as the Studleys and Godwins built up to a weekend in Cleveland that recharged Jon’s body and at least extended his life, if not saved it altogether.

“People that saw me before transplant, they thought I was dying,” Studley recalled Feb. 21 as he and Godwin met to retell their story over a long lunch in Tawas. “That’s how bad I looked.

“(I’m) thankful that Dan was willing to do this. Because if he didn’t, I don’t know what would’ve happened.”

By his own admission, Studley will never be able to thank Godwin enough for making all of this possible. But more on that later.

Studley and Godwin – a retired probation officer and high school sports official – hope their transplant journey together over the last 23 months inspires someone to consider becoming a donor as well.

For Studley, the motivation is obvious. Amid two years of nightly 10-hour dialysis cycles, and the final six months with his quality of life dipping significantly, Studley knew a kidney transplant would be the only way he’d be able to reclaim an active lifestyle. And it’s worked, perhaps better than either he or Godwin imagined was possible.

For Godwin, the reasons are a little different – and admittedly a bit unanticipated. He’d known Studley mostly from refereeing basketball games where Studley had served as an athletic director. He’d always appreciated how Studley took care of him and his crew when they worked at his school. But while that was pretty much the extent of their previous relationship, some details of Studley’s story and similarities to his own really struck Godwin – and led him to make their lifelong connection.

“It’s been rewarding for me. I have told Jon, and I’ve said this to anyone who would listen, that I’m grateful and feel lucky that I’ve been part of this process,” Godwin said. “I don’t feel burdened. I don’t feel anything except a sense of appreciation to Jon that he took me on this journey. I didn’t expect that, but that’s how I feel.”   

Making a connection

As of March, there were 103,223 people nationwide on the national organ transplant waiting list, with 89,101 – or more than 86 percent – hoping for a kidney, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). More than 46,000 transplants were performed in 2023, including the sharing of more than 27,000 kidneys.

Godwin giving one to Studley was among them.

Studley, 43, has served in school athletics for most of the last two decades since graduating with his bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University. After previously serving as an assistant at Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, he became the school’s athletic director at 2009. He moved to Caro in 2012, then to his alma mater Tawas in 2015 for a year before going to Ogemaw Heights. He then took over the Alpena athletic department at the start of the 2020-21 school year, during perhaps the most complicated time in Michigan school sports history as just months earlier the MHSAA was forced to cancel the 2020 spring season because of COVID-19.

He's respected and appreciated both locally and statewide, and was named his region’s Athletic Director of the Year for 2019-20 by the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. Concurrently with serving at Sacred Heart and earning his master’s at CMU, Studley served as athletic director of Mid Michigan College as that school brought back athletics in 2010 for the first time in three decades. He also served four years on the Tawas City Council during his time at Tawas High and Ogemaw Heights.

Studley cheers on Alpena athletes during last season’s MHSAA Track & Field Finals at Rockford High School.Toward the end of his senior year of high school in 2001, Studley was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. For the next two decades, he managed his diabetes primarily with insulin and other medication. But during that first year at Alpena, his health began to take a turn. Studley had been diagnosed with a heart condition – non-compaction cardiomyopathy – which led him to Cleveland Clinic for testing. A urine test in Cleveland indicated his kidneys might not be working like they should – which led to a trip to a specialist and eventually the diagnosis of kidney failure and the start of dialysis, with a kidney transplant inevitable.

Dialysis long has been a standard treatment for people with kidney issues. But it can take a toll. In Studley’s case, that meant being tired all the time – to the point of falling asleep at his desk or having to pull over while driving. He wasn’t receiving enough nutrients and was unable to lift things because of the port for the dialysis tube. Extra fluid building up that his body wouldn’t flush made him constantly uncomfortable.

The next step was transplant, and in July 2021 he was approved to receive a kidney.

The Studleys thought they had a prospect early on, as an aunt on Shannon’s side was a candidate for a paired match – her blood and tissue types weren’t a match for Studley, but matched another person on the waiting list whose donor would be a candidate to give Studley a kidney. But that didn’t work out.

Others showed interest and asked about the process, especially after Studley’s 20-year class reunion in 2021, but nothing concrete came about. Amid the early disappointment, Studley took some time to consider his next move – and then put out a plea over Facebook that fall to his close to 1,000 connections hoping that someone, anyone, might consider.

“I took a week to really think about it – this is what I’m asking for someone to do. I had to get over it in my mind that it was OK to ask,” Studley said. “I’m going to ask someone to make a sacrifice for me, and that’s not me. I always want to help everybody else.”

Godwin is that way too. And immediately after reading Studley’s post, he knew he needed to consider making a call.

Strong match

Godwin had moved to Tawas City from Midland in 2014, and after a few years off from officiating decided to get back on the court that following winter.

He thinks he and Studley may have crossed paths at some point during Studley’s tenures at Sacred Heart and Caro, but it was at Tawas where they got to know each other. Although Studley stayed at Tawas just one school year, Godwin continued officiating for him at Ogemaw Heights – and in fact, Godwin’s final game in 2018 was there, during the District basketball tournament. That night, during the first quarter, Godwin tore the plantar fasciitis in his left foot. He didn’t know if he’d be able to finish the game – the officials from the first game that night stuck around to step in just in case – but thanks in part to Studley connecting Godwin with the Alpena trainer during halftime, he was able to get through the final two quarters and finish his officiating career on his feet.

They’d become Facebook “friends” at some point, so Godwin had seen Studley’s posts over the years with Shannon and Maizy. And when he saw Studley ask for help, something hit him – “immediately.”

Godwin and Studley meet for the first time after the transplant, and again six months later. “I have a 5-year-old granddaughter, almost exactly the same age as Jon’s, and I’m the dad of one child, a daughter, so there were those connections,” Godwin said. “It almost didn’t feel like there was a choice. It felt like it was something I had to do.”

Godwin is 66 and always has been in good health. He’s also always been an organ donor on his driver's license and given blood, things like that. But he had never considered sharing an organ as a living donor until reading Studley’s post.

He read it again to his wife Laurie. They talked it over. He explained why he felt strongly about donating, even to someone he didn’t know that well. After some expected initial fears, Laurie was in. Their daughter had the same fears – What about the slight chance something could go wrong? – but told Laurie she knew neither of them would be able to change her dad’s mind.

“It took me a while to get on board with it, even though I knew in the vast majority of cases somebody who donates an organ is going to be absolutely fine. It’s still major surgery,” Laurie said. “I guess he was just feeling so much like it was something he wanted to do, and he is a very healthy physically fit person. So I felt the odds were really good that he was going to be fine.

“And really, probably, the deciding factor was Maizy. We have a granddaughter the same age, so we were just thinking she needs a dad.”

After a few more days of contemplation, Dan called Cleveland Clinic to find out how to get started.

Then he texted Studley.

“I was nervous saying yes. At first, I didn’t know what to say – I just kept saying, ‘You don’t have to do this, but I appreciate it,’” Studley said. “I never want to have somebody do something for me unless (the situation is dire) … so I told him thank you and I appreciate it, and no pressure.”

Generally, Studley said, the donor and recipient don’t receive information on how the other person is progressing through the process. Godwin, however, kept Studley in the loop, which was a good thing. “But then you’re wondering if it’s going to happen,” Studley said, “if it’s truly a match.”

The initial blood test showed that Godwin wasn’t just a match, but a “strong” match, meaning they share a blood type – the rarest, in fact – and Godwin also didn’t have the worrisome antibodies that could’ve caused his kidney to refuse becoming part of Studley’s body.

That was amazing news. But just the start. “There was so much more we had to go through just to get to surgery day,” Studley said.

Long road ahead

Studley relates the transplant process to a job interview. After meeting with a potential boss, the candidate must wait for an answer – and it could come the next day, or the next week, or months later.

There were several more tests for both to take to make sure the transplant had not only a strong enough chance of being successful, but also wouldn’t be harmful for either of them.

“Right up until the time of the donation, (things) can happen. Like they did blood work on me the Friday before the kidney transplant on Monday, and if that had showed something they were going to send me home,” Godwin said. “So I just kept thinking, is this going to work? It seemed that there were more things that could go wrong than the possibility that it could go right. And that sets everybody up for disappointment – me, because I was invested in doing it, and of course Jon and his family because it was important to them.”

Godwin made a trip to Cleveland Clinic in November – about three months before the surgery. It wasn’t a great visit. His electrocardiogram showed a concern, and a few suspicious skin lesions were an issue because donors must be cancer-free. Almost worse, he couldn’t get in for a follow-up appointment for six weeks.

The wait felt longer knowing not only that there was a possibility for disappointment for Studley, but also the potential something could be unwell with Godwin. But then came good news – at his follow-up, Godwin aced his stress test, alleviating any heart concerns, and the dermatologist said the lesions were basal cell carcinoma and not considered risky to the transplant.

Over the next three months, both Godwin and Studley continued to do whatever they could to keep the transplant on track. To avoid COVID, Godwin and his wife isolated as much as they could, and Studley began wearing a mask frequently at work. Godwin cut out alcohol and coffee and began walking regularly to keep in tip-top shape.

In January 2023, both got the final OK, and the surgery was scheduled for Feb. 20.

But that wasn’t the end of the anxiety.

Studley also had undergone a series of tests and doctor visits, and two days before the transplant he had to get a tooth removed to avoid a possible infection.

Then, on the way from Alpena to Cleveland, Studley’s vehicle hit a deer.

“How is this going to go now?” he recalled thinking. “This is how it started. What’s going to happen now?”

Both arrived in Cleveland safely, eventually. The families stayed apart all weekend, Studley and Godwin communicating briefly by text to check in. There were a few more stop-and-go moments. Godwin’s Friday blood work showed something unfamiliar that ended up harmless. On the day of the surgery, Studley was wheeled to just outside the operating room – and then taken back to his hospital room for another 15 minutes of suspense. Once Studley made it into the operating room, his doctors had to pause during the surgery to tend to an emergency.

But finally, the transplant was complete. And seemingly meant to be. Godwin’s kidney was producing urine for Studley’s body before the surgeons had finished closing him up.

Back on his feet

Studley said he knew he’d be fine once he could start walking the hallways at the hospital; he started doing so the next morning. Later that same day after transplant, on the way back from one of those walks, he saw Godwin for the first time since they’d both arrived in Cleveland. “It was absolutely emotional,” Godwin said.

Godwin went home four days after the surgery. Studley stayed the next month with appointments and labs twice a week. Shannon remained with him the first week, then friends Mike Baldwin and Josh Renkly and Studley’s father Larry took turns as roommates for a week apiece.

For the first three months, including his first two back in Alpena, Studley couldn’t go anywhere except for the trip to Cleveland every other week – which has now turned into every other month with virtual appointments the months in between. Total he missed about six months of work – and thanked especially assistant athletic director and hockey coach Ben Henry for shouldering the load in his absence.

Studley’s checkups are full of more good news. His body is showing no signs of rejecting the kidney. And as long as he keeps his diabetes under control, that shouldn’t affect his new organ either.

Shannon sees the difference while comparing a pair of family trips. The Studleys went to Disney World while Jon was on dialysis, and she said he made it through but got home just “depleted.” This past spring break, the family went to Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Jon had visibly more energy for hiking and other activities. The last six months of dialysis, Jon was sleeping a lot, but this spring he’s helping coach Maizy’s T-ball team and overall is able to spend more quality time with her.

“Most of (Maizy’s) life she’s only known him as sick Dad,” said Shannon, a counselor at Alpena’s Thunder Bay Junior High. “He wasn’t able to do a lot of things with her, and I’ve seen a lot more of that, and I think she notices.”

Studley, his wife Shannon and daughter Maizy enjoy a moment after Jon had returned to good health.Jon will be taking anti-rejection medicine and a steroid every 12 hours for the rest of his life, but that and some other little life adjustments are more than worth it. All anyone has to do is look at those 47 photos from the Facebook post to understand why.

Godwin said he feels better now than he did even before surgery. He does his checkups with Cleveland Clinic over the phone. He also said that if Studley had been found at some point late in the process to be unable to except the kidney, Godwin still would’ve given it to someone else on the waiting list. “I was so invested at that point,” Godwin remembered. “That kidney was going.”  

The two families got together for a reunion in August in Tawas, where they had lunch and walked the pier and the Godwins met Maizy for the first time. She doesn’t really get what’s transpired, but definitely notices Dad doesn’t have a tube coming out of his body at night anymore.

And it’s clear the two men value the connection they’ve made through this unlikely set of circumstances.

“His attitude has been inspiring,” Godwin said. “Because you’ve been through the mill (and) I’ve never heard a negative thing, ‘poor me’ or anything. And I think maybe that’s what helps keep you going.”

“You talk to people who know Dan, and they said, ‘That’s Dan. That’s what Dan does,’” Studley said, speaking of Godwin’s gift and then addressing him directly. “The hardest part for me, the biggest struggle … is there’s no way I’m going to ever be able to thank you for this.

“It’s like the post I posted yesterday on Facebook. I posted pictures of everything I had done in the last year, and a lot of it was stuff that I hadn’t done in a long time. My way to thank Dan is just living my life the best I can, enjoying my family. … For me, it’s changed my perspective.”

As lunch finished up, Godwin did have one ask in return – not for one of Studley’s organs, but to be part of a special moment that helped drive him to donate 12 months earlier.

“This isn’t the venue, but I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ve never asked for anything and I don’t want anything,” Godwin said, “but I would like to go to Maizy’s wedding.”

“Yeah, you … yes. Yes,” Studley replied. “You can go to anything you want to go to with my family.”

“I’d like to be there.”

“You will definitely be there.”

“I was at my daughter’s wedding,” Godwin said, noting again that connection between the men’s families, and the importance he felt in Studley being there for Maizy like he’d been there for his child.

“You say that, but there were times I didn’t know if I’d make it to Maizy’s wedding. I might not make it to see her graduate. So …” Studley trailed off, ready to take the next step in his life rejuvenated.

Studley emphasized the continuing need for kidney donors and refers anyone interested in learning more to the National Kidney Registry.

PHOTOS (Top) Alpena athletic director Jon Studley, left, and retired MHSAA game official Dan Godwin take a photo together on the shore of Lake Huron one year after Godwin donated a kidney to Studley. (2) Studley cheers on Alpena athletes during last season’s MHSAA Track & Field Finals at Rockford High School. (3) Godwin and Studley meet for the first time after the transplant, and again six months later. (4) Studley, his wife Shannon and daughter Maizy enjoy a moment after Jon had returned to good health. (Top photo by Geoff Kimmerly; other photos provided by Jon Studley.)