Former Tomahawk teacher, coach John Handel tapped as Milwaukee Heart and Stroke Walk featured speaker
By Dan Truttschel
Marketing Communications Director, Milwaukee American Heart Association
MILWAUKEE – It’s been two-plus decades since a then-rookie boys basketball coach came to Tomahawk from Lake Geneva to begin what turned into a 28-year career.
But John Handel certainly hasn’t forgotten his roots.
Fast forward to current time, and Handel remembers fondly his three years with Tomahawk as part of his bigger life’s story that nearly took a tragic turn about a year ago.
Handel had just concluded his remarks as part of his induction into the Elkhorn High School Hall of Fame last Oct. 8, where he spent 17 years as a head coach immediately after his tenure at Tomahawk, when he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest that nearly ended his life.
But he’s now healthy, alive and well and will share that story as the featured speaker at the Milwaukee American Heart Association (AHA)’s 2023 Heart and Stroke Walk on Saturday, Sept. 23. Handel will address the crowd at Veterans Park at about 10 a.m.
As he prepares for that event, Handel, who coached and taught at Tomahawk from 1994-97, took a moment to reflect on the start of his head coaching journey.
“So many great memories of my formative years in Tomahawk,” Handel said. “I enjoyed my time there very much, and still enjoy a lot of friends from there who still live in the area. Having lifelong relationships with former players is truly a gift, one that I have never taken for granted. I always appreciate Tomahawk taking a chance on me and giving me a chance to be a head coach. They will forever have a place in my heart, and I will forever be a ‘Hatchet.’”
The details surrounding his cardiac arrest remain somewhat a mystery, but Handel had just finished accepting his award and was about to have a photograph taken with Jerry Hoffman, the stepfather of former Elkhorn star Brian Earle, when he collapsed to the ground.
“As soon as I turned around, I never even made it and down I went,” Handel said.
It was that point that Hoffman, a trained emergency medical technician, along with a nurse and a cardiologist and a police officer – all there for the ceremony – sprung into action with immediate CPR, and soon after, the use of an AED to attempt to save Handel’s life.
Handel, 58, had regained consciousness and was fully aware of what was going on by the time he was whisked away by ambulance to St. Luke’s in Milwaukee. Just four days later, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery, along with a stem and valve replacement.
Doctors quickly determined that Handel had a severe blockage that needed immediate attention. He said he was born with a pre-existing condition, a bicuspid aortic valve, instead of what most people have, a tricuspid aortic valve.
The aortic valve controls the flow of blood from the left ventricle to the aorta, which is the main artery that delivers blood to the body.
“Eighteen months before (the event), (his doctors) were like, ‘This is something we’ll have to keep an eye on,” Handel said. “I don’t now if (his cardiac arrest) was avoidable or not.”
CPR/AED at the forefront
With his life saved by those knowing how to do CPR and use an AED, it’s pretty apparent the importance of knowing both to Handel, his family and friends.
And as an educator, who has dedicated his life to coaching and athletics, having a plan in place at every public facility is paramount, he said. Handel, a graduate of Badger High School in Lake Geneva, began his coaching career at his alma mater, where he was there for five years, followed by three in northern Wisconsin in Tomahawk, 17 at Elkhorn and three at UW-Whitewater.
The fact that his event happened where it did isn’t lost on him, either.
“I think, if it had happened in another spot, it probably wouldn’t have had the same result,” he said. “I’m pretty lucky there.”
According to the American Heart Association, seven of 10 people in the United States say they feel powerless to act in the face of a cardiac event.
And with more than 356,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests that occur yearly – with 90% of those fatal – that means many will not get the immediate care by a bystander. It’s estimated that only about 40% of those in cardiac arrest get the help they need before emergency personnel can arrive.
Looking even deeper at the numbers specifically to schools, the AHA estimates that more than 23,000 children younger than 18 experience a cardiac arrest away from a hospital setting each year, and almost 40% of those are sports related.
Those statistics show the importance of not only having a cardiac emergency response plan in place, but one that everyone in the building can execute when a situation like Handel’s arises.
“Education and the value of having as many people trained and having these (AED) devices available in as many settings as possible (is so important),” Handel said.
On the mend
Handel, now fully back at work as the athletic director with a full plate of events, said he continues to go through rehabilitation – but he’s feeling strong and healthy.
There’s been a lot of work to get back to this point, he said.
“They equate it to a car accident that you went through, so it’s a matter of following the protocol, changing diets,” Handel said. “The rehab was great. I still go to rehab because I choose to. I’m still working on dialing in all my medicines and stuff like that. But overall, I’m doing pretty well. I’m sleeping a lot better. I think I slept horribly before this. I noticed that right away. I just feel a lot better. My heart rate is way down. There were a lot of positive things, but it’s still a process.”
The ceremony happened at the school, which brings back constant memories as Handel walks the halls daily.
“I walk past that spot and think of it all the time,” he said.
But he’s not dwelling on that day – there’s too much to be done guiding the Elkhorn Athletic Department and being around his family and friends, Handel said.
His family – wife, Barb; and children, Connor, Maggie and Katie – have been there every step of the way.
“(There’s been) a lot of support,” Handel said. “They were there the whole time. My wife and kids have been a rock through this whole thing.”
And to those who jumped in when his life hung in the balance? Where does one start when it comes to thanking them?
“It just shows that there’s a lot of good in a lot of people, who are willing to step up and want you to do well,” he said. “It resets your priorities (when this happens). I work a lot, but I’m active and staying active. I know I need to continue to be active. Health takes a priority now.”