Spillman returns to diamond, remembering those who saved him

Even to most of the kids who attend Cannon Falls (Minn.) High School, where the town's population is all of 4,100, junior Mike Spillman is considered something of a country guy.

He and his family live on a dairy farm just outside the little town that's about a 45-minute drive southeast of Minneapolis and St. Paul. That earned him the nickname "Milker." From the time he started playing basketball, his baskets have been followed by an enthusiastic "Moo!" from the stands.

Nobody moos when he's playing for the Cannon Falls Bombers baseball team. But when he's running the bases, teammates will yell for him to get on his cow instead of his horse.

"Now I have a new nickname," Spillman dutifully reported recently. "Iron Man."

That'll happen when a pacemaker is inserted atop your heart soon after you've gone into sudden cardiac arrest at age 16. In September, Spillman collapsed at the high school gym while playing pickup basketball and had what he calls "an event." The quick action of the open gym supervisor, with the help of a couple of students, helped stabilize him until a police officer and paramedics revived him.

"It worked out perfectly," Spillman said.

He can no longer play basketball. But Spillman was overjoyed to learn just before the season began that he was cleared by doctors to return to baseball, where he plays first and third base.

"You should have seen the smile on his face when he learned he could start," said Mike's father, Gary.


Ross Peterson, a physical education teacher at Cannon Falls' elementary school, wasn't scheduled to monitor open gym on Wednesday night, Sept. 17. That duty usually belonged to the high school basketball coaches. But head coach Chip Callister and his staff had to attend a conference coaches meeting down in Rochester, Minn.

Peterson, a former basketball coach in his 15th year as a teacher in Cannon Falls, was asked to fill in. His son Isaac, a junior on the basketball team, would be at the gym anyway.

Open gym runs for two hours on Wednesday and Sunday nights. In the fall, starters on the Cannon Falls varsity often show up along with younger players looking to improve. They usually are joined by other guys just looking to have some fun.

Spillman, a 6-foot-3 center, and sophomore Demetre Growette fell into the first category. Neither played for the varsity in 2007-08. Growette -- 5-foot-10, 150 pounds -- is among the fastest athletes at the school. He's a point guard, a receiver/running back/defensive back and a sprinter on the track team.

Senior Joel Willenbring fell in the second category. He had given up basketball a year or so earlier and concentrates on track, namely the 200 meters, 4x200-meter relay, pole vault and triple jump. He spent this past summer as a lifeguard at the Cannon Falls town pool.

The boys were playing full court while Peterson sat in the bleachers grading papers. One game down, it was time to shoot for teams again. Spillman shot, got a drink and was on his way back when he collapsed near the sideline.

Spillman is a quiet kid with a dry sense of humor. Some of the other players thought this might be one of his gags. But there was the loud thud from his head hitting the court. As Growette put it, "His eyes were open, but there were no lights on."

Peterson could see Spillman beginning to convulse. All school district staffers who supervise student activities are trained in emergency procedures. Peterson immediately directed some kids to call 911 and others to spread out to try to find help. He told custodian Josh Stephens to bring in the nearest automatic external defibrillator from the hallway just outside the gym.

Peterson couldn't locate Spillman's pulse and didn't think he was breathing. He started the sequence of steps in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and was joined by Growette and Willenbring.

All ninth-graders at Cannon Falls take CPR as part of Kathy Illa's health course. Growette figured as a sophomore, he would have remembered the instruction more than the guys there who were juniors and seniors. Willenbring, although he was a senior, had taken a refresher course during the summer as part of his lifeguard training.

Peterson performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Growette applied the compressions to the chest. Willenbring held up Spillman's head to open his airway.

"It was two, two-and-a-half minutes from the time the phone call was made," Peterson said. "It seemed longer."

Patrolman Mitch Althoff of the Cannon Falls Police Department responded to the dispatcher's call identifying a young man going into seizure at the high school gym. He arrived just ahead of members of the town's volunteer EMT team, which included his brother, Mike. The paramedics applied the AED, which revived Spillman.

"I think he came to as he was loaded into the ambulance," Althoff said. "It was a textbook deal."

Said Peterson, "The training that our staff gets every year is, well, it came through. If I had to think about each step, I'm not sure how well it would have turned out. And even if you do things correctly, it doesn't always happen in that situation."

Spillman was taken by ambulance to the nearby Cannon Falls hospital. From there, he was airlifted by helicopter to Children's Hospital in St. Paul. "When he got to St. Paul, we were told he was in safe hands," Gary Spillman said.

Mike Spillman then was transferred to the Children's hospital in Minneapolis that specializes in heart surgery. He was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic thickening of the heart wall. That Friday, a pacemaker was inserted just below his skin.

Spillman said he doesn't remember anything that happened in Cannon Falls after he dropped. "Next thing I remember, I was in the copter," he said. "They asked me what grade I was in, and I couldn't decide if I was a sophomore, a junior, a freshman."

The Spillmans say they were told that only 10 percent of people with the condition survive following cardiac arrest. When Hank Gathers of the Loyola Marymount University basketball team died in 1989, the autopsy identified hypertrophic cardiomyopathy as the cause. The family was surprised that such a disorder didn't reveal itself the previous summer, when Mike went through a much more stressful situation at the Gustavus Adolphus College basketball camp.

Peterson knew just about every boy at the gym that night. He either taught them coming through elementary school or knew them through Isaac. So Peterson told them all to head to his house, only a few blocks from the hospital, and hang out there after paramedics took Spillman away until they received word on his condition.

"No one panicked," Peterson said with a hint of appreciation and pride. "You feel the gravity of the situation when it's over. But when everything was happening, everyone reacted the way they had to."


Growing up on the dairy farm that has been in the family since the 1940s, the four Spillman children had more things to occupy them than most kids in and around Cannon Falls. Milking cows, cleaning the barn, feeding the heifers and calves.

Running the farm didn't give Gary Spillman and wife, Penny, much chance to follow the nearby big league teams such as the Minnesota Vikings and Twins in person. No big deal. "We'd rather watch the kids," Gary said.

Kelly and Anne both played tennis. Doug played football and baseball. Mike, the youngest, started off with T-ball and has played baseball since. He picked up basketball before sixth grade and stopped playing football after his freshman season.

Cannon Falls High has an enrollment of about 400. It's in Minnesota's Class 2A, the state's middle classification. The Bombers compete in the Hiawatha Valley League. This is Bucky Lindow's 11th year as varsity baseball coach, his 15th year at the school. From 1991 through 2004, the Bombers won either their league or subsectional titles.

Spillman was released two days after the operation and was out of school for another week. According to the parties involved, the subsequent reunions between him and the folks who helped save his life were understated but genuine signs of appreciation.

"He looked a little scared," Growette said of Spillman's return to school. "I asked him how he was. He said he felt OK."

Willenbring said he might be able to relate to Spillman's readjustment because he had once missed five weeks of classes after being hit by a car.

"I just told him it was nice to see him up and about," said Willenbring, who plans to attend Minnesota's Bethel University in the fall. "We had a little handshake. Used to be I'd see him around, playing basketball. But now I've become pretty close to Mike."

Growette said his grandfather cried when he learned of his role that night. His grandmother, Gerri, said Demetre is now considering a medical career.

At the end of the football season, the three boys and Peterson were invited to the Metrodome to be recognized during the state finals. They drove to Minneapolis along with the high school principal, Steve Fredrickson, for a TV appearance on behalf of efforts to emphasize the teaching of CPR in Minnesota schools through a program called "Anyone Can Save A Life." And there were a couple more ceremonies at Cannon Falls basketball games.

Doctors told Spillman he could no longer participate in sports that require regular intense activity, such as football and basketball. He was offered the opportunity to become a basketball team manager but politely declined and instead just watched.

Jessica Anderson, a school nurse, has a son on the basketball team. She provided every player a wristband with a word specially stitched into it in Spillman's honor.

Moo. The players wore them in every game this past season.

The Spillmans can joke a little about Mike's experience. But Kelly Spillman, editor of the weekly Maple River Messenger newspaper of Mapleton, Minn., about 100 miles west of Cannon Falls, said she's more aware while jogging of how tired she is and whether to stop.

Mike, who turned 17 on April 2, was already working out on his own in anticipation of being cleared to play baseball. "I was 60-40 sure," he said.

His parents, of course, also were hopeful.

"We didn't want him sitting here doing nothing," Gary Spillman said. "That's not his style."

Junior center fielder Daniel Venn was one of the first to learn of Spillman's return.

"He texted me as soon as he found out," Venn said.

Lindow said that even though Spillman is a quiet kid, he can see the joy in his game.

"He leaves his feet when he gets excited. He pumps his fist," Lindow said. "It's really nice to see."

Venn said the best part of Spillman's game is his fielding, that he's particularly good at digging out low throws at first base. He isn't too shabby at the plate, either, hitting .357.

Spillman wears special padding to project his chest against any sudden impact. In his first game, some Bombers fans winced when he dove headfirst into third base.

"Some people were worried," Lindow said. "But the doctors assured me and the doctors assured his parents he was OK."

Spillman said an episode on the farm a week earlier convinced him that sliding headfirst into a base would be all right.

"One of the calves got out," he said, "and I had to dive to get it."

In perhaps a riskier move a couple of weekends back, Spillman attended the junior-senior prom. He had a good time but took it easy on the dance floor.

"I'm not a big dancer," he conceded.

Open gym has gone on with no further incident, except maybe some questionable self-officiating. And Peterson hasn't been asked again to fill in.

"I wouldn't shy away from it," he said. "You know why you're there."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.