Fischer: There must be a reason I'm still here

DETROIT -- One year ago, Detroit Red Wings defenseman Jiri Fischer returned to the team bench after a shift against the Nashville Predators and collapsed.

As doctors and emergency attendants worked feverishly over Fischer's convulsing body, while his teammates and opponents and a sold-out Joe Louis Arena watched in stunned silence, Fischer's heart stopped.

It was a matter of seconds; in the course of a lifetime as a grain of sand is to a beach. But in that moment, Jiri Fischer and the life that he had known ceased to exist. In its place has emerged a man who is different, that much is clear. But what is equally clear is that this Jiri Fischer is not just different, he's better and happier than ever before.

"It really changed my life for the better. I haven't been this lucky in my life," Fischer told ESPN.com. "It was an experience that made my life better. I was able to learn things about my body at age 25 instead of age 60.

"Right now, many people come up to me and they feel sorry for me. They say, 'How are you doing? I hope you can play one day.' I say, I hope I can get healthy one day."

Fischer, now 26, is sitting in the quiet of the media workroom in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena. One of the oldest rinks in the NHL, Joe Louis throbs with a perpetual hum that muffles the sounds of Fischer's teammates as they practice a short walk away.

The team has defied skeptics and is off to a good start as it once again pursues the Stanley Cup. Fischer, though, is pursuing something more elusive: answers to his near-death experience and a new course for his second chance at life.

"I died. I died and I was brought back," he said.

Even now, a year later, the otherworldly elements of that evening are enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

Had Fischer collapsed in almost any other NHL arena, it's almost certain he would have died.

"Right now, many people come up to me and they feel sorry for me. They say, 'How are you doing? I hope you can play one day.' I say, I hope I can get healthy one day."
-- Jiri Fischer

Or had it happened at a practice rink.

Or had he been alone at home.

Or on a plane.

Or even if he'd gone down at the opposite end of the ice.

But Fischer's good fortune was going into cardiac arrest on the Detroit bench, three rows away from good friend and team doctor Tony Colucci.

Colucci, an emergency room physician, saw a crowd gathering at the end of the bench and immediately thought it was Mark Mowers, who'd just come back into the lineup.

"But when I saw it was Jiri doing what he was doing, I thought, 'Oh my God,'" Colucci told ESPN.com.

It was Colucci who'd talked to Fischer about the harmful possibilities when a slight heart abnormality was first discovered in September 2002. So, when Colucci saw his friend convulsing and unconscious, he knew it was the heart.

There was no pulse, no heartbeat, and with emergency technicians and team trainers helping out, Colucci cut away Fischer's jersey and pads and administered an AED (automated external defibrillator) to shock Fischer's heart back to life.

By the time he was put in an ambulance, Fischer was confused but conscious and sitting up. After Fischer departed, Colucci made a number of phone calls, the first to his wife. "I just broke down and started crying," Colucci said.

When Fischer woke up in a hospital later that evening, still uncertain of exactly what had brought him to the bed, his first thoughts were of his career.

Fischer, the 25th overall pick in the 1998 draft, had established himself as a promising member of a very good Detroit Red Wings team. He'd helped the team win a Cup in 2002 and would have been a shoo-in to make the Czech Olympic team for the 2006 Winter Games.

"It was a really confusing time and a strange time right after it happened," Fischer said. "It was stressful. It wasn't easy. It was emotionally very hard. [My career] was something I had worked very hard for. And it was taken away from me in an instant."

Twice in the following weeks, he suffered similar episodes of cardiac arrest, both at home, once while he was sitting on the couch and another while standing in the kitchen. During each of these episodes, Fischer's heartbeat escalated to some 300 beats per minute, but he did not black out as he did at Joe Louis Arena. In fact, he manually overrode the "life vest," allowing his heart to regain its own rhythm naturally.

"I didn't want to get shocked, it was simple as that," he said.

The "life vest," a vest-like apparatus that constantly monitors Fischer's heart rate, is a part of his daily wardrobe. If he has an episode similar to the one on the ice in November 2005, or two others that followed in his home, the device senses the arrhythmia and sends an electric shock through his body that will hopefully restore the heart's rhythm. The device even has a two-way radio capability that warns both the patient and bystanders that a shock is about to be administered.

Periodically during our long-ranging discussion, the machine gives off a little ping sound, a reminder of its presence and the changes the native of Horovice, Czech Republic, has undergone.

"I died. I died and I was brought back."
-- Jiri Fischer

Studies of athletes who suffer from cardiac arrest show that few survive, in large part because the proper equipment and personnel aren't close enough to matter. Colucci has treated four patients in seemingly perfect health who suffered similar attacks: two 14-year-olds, a 17-year-old and Fischer. Only Fischer survived.

"Jiri's a great guy. He's a very intelligent guy. He's a very blessed guy," Colucci said.

These days, you don't so much interview Jiri Fischer as you do engage him -- or rather, he engages you. As a professor who is passionate about his subject might draw his students into a lecture, Fischer quietly but forcefully explains how he has embraced a new method of treatment involving environmental and functional medicine that he hopes will provide answers about how the heart of an outstanding physical specimen, who never smoked or drank or used drugs, quit. How can those methods create an environment in which he can live a long, happy life?

Bitter? Sad? Lost? One could hardly find a more upbeat, positive person than Fischer. It is a positivity that has made his presence around the Red Wings not just tolerable but uplifting.

"I think the reason it's not hard [to see Fischer] is that he is so upbeat. He's very positive, very optimistic," GM Ken Holland said. "And I think that's what keeps him going."

Early on in his recovery, Fischer realized he wasn't interested in merely taking medication that would treat the symptoms of his heart problems. He wanted to attack the root cause.

It's a journey that has changed his life, and in many ways, given his life back to him.

Fischer began consuming medical reports and researching different fields of medicine. Hours upon hours were, and continue to be, spent on the computer, searching journals and reports.

His investigation led him to a symposium in Florida featuring some of the leading experts on how the human body is affected by a wide range of toxins, from formaldehyde to cleaning solutions in carpets to airborne toxins that the body is just now beginning to learn how to absorb.

After speaking to some of the presenters, Fischer's quest took him to the Institute for Functional Medicine in Dallas. He met there with doctors and patients, some of whom had suffered debilitating illnesses, the source of which other doctors could not pinpoint. Many of the patients, including some who were doctors themselves, had come to the institute as a last resort, called "drop-off cases" because traditional forms of treatment had failed.

"That was really an opening of my mind," Fischer said.

That trip yielded a workout regimen, or protocol, that Fischer has been following now for four months. It's a protocol that includes hydrotherapy, physical therapy and removing elements of his life that he feels may have contributed over the years to his heart problems. Fischer also has altered his diet and reorganized his home in an effort to remove elements such as cleaning products and certain foods that might increase the levels of toxins in the house. It's a complete detoxification of every element of Fischer's life.

The same basic methodology is being employed for post-Sept. 11 workers and for those needing to detoxify their bodies as a result of alcohol or drug abuse. People who work in so-called "sick" buildings are always employing the treatment.

"I absolutely believe it was caused over a long period of time and wasn't caused by one thing," Fischer said. "And one day, my heart just said that's enough."

He understands that the things he's talking about are at least outside the norm for most people and may even be viewed as heretical, or worse. UFOs, the yeti, pyramid power, environmental medicine. For some people, it's all part of the same continuum.

A year ago, Fischer admitted he, too, would have been skeptical about such an approach. Not now.

"I really have to figure this problem out. I really believe I'm onto something pretty good," he said. "The answers were there. It's a matter of looking, it's a matter of searching. I'm still finding them out."

Even Colucci is skeptical, warning Fischer not to let people take advantage of him and to be careful as he moves along this path. Still, he said he's supportive of Fischer's passion and determination to find answers.

Said Colucci: "In medicine, nothing is black and white."

Part of Fischer's regimen involves daily workouts at Joe Louis Arena, a place some could assume would be a place best avoided by Fischer. He nearly died there. He is unlikely to ever return there as a player. One might assume the discomfort of being so close to what was once so important and is now virtually unattainable would be more than Fischer could bear.

"It's totally the opposite," Fischer said. "I really wanted to keep up with the guys. Coming down here is so emotionally uplifting for me. I'm doing my treatment in an environment I love."

He still thinks about returning to the game, and by the end of the season, it's possible he will visit specialists at the Mayo Clinic to see if his heart condition has improved enough to allow for more serious thought to a comeback.

Holland said the team will spare no expense if Fischer believes he's recovered enough to explore a return.

But a year later, Fischer seems to view his life through a different set of lenses. He relishes his relationships with his fiancée Avery, a psychology major at Wayne State University, and their newborn son.

"Thanks to [Avery], I really appreciate life in the way that I do today," he said. "Just getting up in the morning and not being unhappy."

Of course, the birth of his son two months ago has been a contributing factor in Fischer's recovery. "That gives me a huge happy boost every day."

"I'm excited, not just that I'm alive, but that there's a good start every day," Fischer said.

In sports, stories of recovery and rebirth and renaissance are all seen through the prism of the playing field. Players are said to possess great character and internal fortitude for coming back from horrible injuries or for battling through illness.

It is entirely likely that Fischer will never play in the NHL again. Yet it would be hard to dispute that Fischer represents all of those qualities and more.

"There must be a reason why I'm still here and I'm still trying to figure that one out. And I don't think it's so I can enjoy playing hockey again," Fischer said. "It was just meant to happen.

"Why? Hopefully I'm going to find out one day."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.