High School Sports

‘Tough old bugger’ Don Lucas cherishing time with Bald Eagle Area softball after major health scare

Even after open heart surgery, Lucas didn’t doubt he’d be back coaching the Lady Eagles

Bald Eagle Area softball coach Don Lucas had emergency open heart surgery before the season, but he knew he'd be back out coaching.
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Bald Eagle Area softball coach Don Lucas had emergency open heart surgery before the season, but he knew he'd be back out coaching.

Bald Eagle Area softball coach Don Lucas still remembers being strapped to a gurney, wheeled through the hallways of St. Thomas Heart Hospital outside Nashville on Jan. 20. He looked to his surgeon with wide eyes and fear. “I’m really scared,” Lucas said at the time. “I have to be back Wednesday. I have open gym.”

Sitting in BEA’s third-base dugout on Tuesday evening, Lucas can laugh about that moment now. Legs crossed, eying the infield through a pair of black sunglasses, the coach tapped his heart and smiled.

Lucas, a longtime fixture in Centre County, survived sudden cardiac arrest 11 weeks ago. He survived the immediate five-hour surgery that corrected three blocked arteries. And he survived four weeks without softball, four weeks without season preparation, four weeks without — as he calls them — “my gals.”

According to the American Heart Association, 90 percent of people who experience out-of-hospital cardiac arrest die. But Lucas is back with BEA against the odds, coaching and counting his blessings.

“I thank God every day I can walk around this infield, see these gals play. I didn’t take it for granted before. But you learn to appreciate it so much more when it’s almost taken from you,” Lucas said. “It’s a big deal for me now. I don’t know how long I’m going to keep doing it. But I knew I wanted to get back this year.”

That was clear from the jump. The warning signs? Not so much.

Two weeks before Christmas Day, Lucas checked in with his doctor about chest discomfort. An EKG came back normal. The doctor also ordered a stress test, but Lucas’ insurance company denied coverage of it, saying it wasn’t “medically necessary.”

Lucas — a non-smoker and non-drinker — figured to be in good health. He has a family history of heart issues, but after the EKG, he believed everything to be OK. So Lucas and his wife, Cheryl, visited their son and his family in Nashville for the holidays.

A month later, Lucas sat in an ambulance, stunned.

“We watched the controversial Saints-Rams game with my wife and her family, and they’re from New Orleans. They were going crazy,” Lucas’ son, Corby, said, recalling the scene from his in-laws’ house. “I’m looking at the TV, and my mom yells my name.”

Corby turned and saw his father slumped over. Hysteria set in. Is he choking? Is he choking? Corby tried the Heimlich maneuver for three minutes to no avail. Lucas wasn’t choking — but he was not responding.

Someone called 9-1-1 as they switched to CPR. Corby handled compressions, while his wife gave breaths. Corby — a CPR-certified middle school athletic director — never thought he’d have to utilize his training. Let alone on a family member. “You don’t think clearly in those situations,” Corby added. “You’re not rational. You just react. You just do it. This is my dad. I have to bring him back.”

Corby and his wife kept Lucas alive for five minutes until medics arrived. An AED shocked him back into rhythm before he was stabilized and loaded into an ambulance, destined for St. Thomas Heart Hospital.

Ten minutes later, Lucas was wheeled into the ER and met Dr. Ashok N. Babu. The coach informed Babu of his open-gym practice in four days back in central Pennsylvania, and the heart-transplant surgeon chuckled. “I don’t think you’re going to make it this week,” Babu said.

Lucas went under anesthesia and woke up five hours later. The surgery was successful.

As he eased into coherence, Lucas didn’t ask the surgeon about his personal health. He didn’t seek specifics on how the procedure went. All he wanted to know was whether or not he could coach in the spring. Shortly thereafter, Corby texted BEA athletic director Doug Dyke: “You need to know the man leading your softball program.”

But Dyke understood. He received a call from the coach two days after the surgery.

“He said, ‘I’ll be back. I’ll be there,’” Dyke recalled. “It’s funny in a way. This guy really shouldn’t have made it, and now 48 hours later, all he’s thinking about is how we’ll cover open gym. Some people would say that’s crazy or he needs to get his priorities in order. But that’s how much he likes doing it. ... I told him to listen to his wife and kids, and that we’ll talk softball later. But I knew he was a tough old bird. Tough old bugger.”

But, in the weeks immediately following surgery, that “tough old bird” wasn’t ready to run Lady Eagle practices. Not yet. Lucas was released from St. Thomas after five days in the hospital, but couldn’t travel for at least four weeks. Lucas stayed with his son’s family and rested.

Meanwhile, BEA’s season preparations pushed on. Assistant coach Morgan Peters, along with Jack Tobias, ran indoor sessions, and the team was kept in the loop. Lady Eagles pitcher Madison Peters, Morgan’s younger sister, received updates when necessary. As did the rest of the squad.

That wasn’t enough, though: The players needed to see Lucas, and vice versa. After BEA’s first open gym, the Lady Eagles crowded around a cell phone and Facetime’d their coach. Lucas smiled as he asked how the girls would grade their first session. And Lucas received hundreds of get-well cards. Family visited; so did Philipsburg-Osceola softball coach Jim Gonder.

Still, stuck in Nashville for most of February, Lucas relied on Peters, Tobias and the players to keep him posted. A part of Lucas hurt. He knew what he was missing out on.

That’s why March 4 — the first official practice of the 2019 campaign — meant so much to the coach. As is tradition for Lucas, he walked into BEA’s gym by himself 15 minutes before the players showed up. This time was different, though.

“It was surreal,” the coach said. “Because for all intents and purposes, I shouldn’t be here.”

But Lucas is back where he belongs. And the Lady Eagles — “25 mother hens,” as Lucas called them — are happy to have him back. BEA senior Kayleigh Kinley said the coach “hasn’t skipped a beat.” “He’s still coach,” starting pitcher Madison Peters added.

Still, the Lady Eagles worry about him. On Monday night, BEA played Penns Valley, and there was a close call at third base that went the Lady Rams’ way. Lucas took issue with the umpire’s decision and was about to snap — but his players pleaded with him. No! No! Don’t get excited!

“It’s funny,” the coach said with a wry smile. “But it actually means a lot. I know they care. They’re looking out for the old guy.”

The “old guy” is doing well, all things considered. Not only is BEA 3-1 entering Saturday, but its coach jogged for the first time early this week. He can throw and hit in practice. Lucas isn’t allowed to do a pushup, much to his dismay. But the coach’s recovery continues to progress in a positive direction.

That doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows him, either.

When Lucas told the Lady Eagles he’d return in that first FaceTime, Kinley knew he was telling the truth. Dyke wanted the coach to return, and despite some early concerns, the AD knew Lucas couldn’t stay away. Corby Lucas, the son who saved his father’s life, never had a doubt.

“That’s Don Lucas,” Corby added. “That’s my dad.”

As for Lucas, this three-month challenge — surviving cardiac arrest, making it through a complicated surgery, not yelling at umpires — has been difficult. He doesn’t deny that. But at the very least, it has reaffirmed a life motto of his.

“I always tell my team that we don’t look behind us. God would put eyeballs in the back of our heads if that were the case,” Lucas said, nodding his head. “We’re trying to move forward. Not forget about what happened, but not key in on it so much that it becomes an issue.

“I think I surprised a lot of people by showing up for the first day of the season and saying, ‘Hey, we’re ready to rock and roll. Let’s get this going.’ I’m blessed. And I’m thankful.”