June Daugherty, the WSU women’s basketball coach, has turned the experience of a sudden cardiac arrest into an opportunity to educate Americans about the prevalence of SCA, especially among people who appear healthy and have no history of heart disease.
June Daugherty, the WSU women’s basketball coach, has turned the experience of a sudden cardiac arrest into an opportunity to educate Americans about the prevalence of SCA, especially among people who appear healthy and have no history of heart disease.

In May of 2007, former college basketball player Kayla Burt received word that her friend and college coach June Daugherty was in the hospital in critical condition.

Upon hearing the news, she thought of nothing but getting from her home in Oregon to Everett, Washington, to see Daugherty.

“I packed my bag in five minutes,” recalls Burt, who played for Daugherty from 2001 to 2006 on the University of Washington’s women’s team. “I thought June had had a heart attack. I didn’t know if she had passed away because I didn’t have a lot of information. Immediately my adrenaline started going and I just left.”

As she drove north, Burt received more information that allayed her worst fears. “I realized she was alive and in the hospital in Everett. I drove straight to the hospital.”

Once she arrived, things crystallized into what was becoming an all-too familiar scenario.

Burt, who had survived a cardiac emergency on New Year’s Eve 2002, learned that Daugherty had suffered a cardiac arrest.

At the time of her own attack, Burt was a player for the University of Washington and had been celebrating the holiday with her teammates. Only the quick actions of her friends, who performed CPR, saved the 23-year-old’s life. “On any other night I would not have eight of my teammates at my house,” Burt says. “I feel like there’s a reason for it. It was almost like God was saying it wasn’t your time to go.”

Fast-forward five years and it wasn’t Daugherty’s time either.

It was May of 2007, and Daugherty, having left UW, was the new head coach at Washington State. Her 13-year-old daughter was home from school sick and riding along to a medical clinic where Daugherty had an appointment to discuss the results of a recent stress test with her cardiologist.

Daugherty had just parked the car when she slumped over, suffering sudden cardiac arrest. Her daughter rushed for help, saving Daugherty’s life by summoning a number of doctors to attend to her mother.

Daugherty was rushed to the Providence Regional Medical Center Everett where she was listed initially in critical condition and upgraded to serious the following day. Throughout Daugherty’s eight-day stay at Providence, Burt remained nearby.

“I did have short-term memory loss so I don’t have a lot of recall from those days, but I do remember Kayla being there,” says Daugherty. “I was told later by my family that Kayla wouldn’t leave the hospital.”

Drawing from her own experience and knowledge, Burt realized that her coach was not only going to make it through the cardiac arrest, but beyond. “I knew that everything was going to be okay and that she was going to come out of this. She was going to be a stronger person because of it and she was going to live a normal life.”

While both Daugherty and Burt are living normal lives today, they’re different people because of the experience. Daugherty is still the head coach of the women’s basketball team at Washington State University. And Burt, after spending a season coaching at Portland, decided to move from sports to medicine, to work as an EMT.

“It definitely was a life-changing experience, there’s no doubt about it,” says Daugherty. “I never thought this would happen to me in a million years.”

Both discovered that it is not so rare for a woman to suffer cardiac arrest, and now share the common purpose of promoting cardiac disease awareness and prevention.

“I’m still in the process of sometimes not believing [that it happened],” says Daugherty. “At the same time I’ve seen that so much good has come out of it. It’s helped me really appreciate having a second opportunity in life with my family and my friends.

“It’s also given me a chance to continue to do something I enjoy and that is coaching basketball.

“Somewhere in the middle of it all, I found an avenue to support a need in the country and the world for information about cardiac arrest,” says Daugherty. “The numbers are mind-boggling as far as the deaths and heart attacks and sudden cardiac arrests going on.”

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States; one in three female adults has some form of cardiovascular disease, and, since 1984, the number of cardiovascular disease deaths for females has exceeded those for males.

Citing this type of data, Daugherty stresses that more research funding is needed. She was ultimately diagnosed as suffering sudden cardiac arrest and has a pacemaker and defibrillator placed in her chest. However, the diagnosis for her former player was not as conclusive.

“The doctors need more research, more funding, and more time for someone like Kayla, who’s so young and so athletic and has got such a great life in front of her, so they can give her answers as to why this is happening and hope they can fix it,” says Daugherty.

“It’s still kind of a mystery,” adds Burt, who also has a defibrillator. “They thought they had a diagnosis right away and then later realized it was probably a misdiagnosis. [Now] I have been diagnosed with idiopathic ventricular fibrillation, which basically means I had a cardiac arrest and they don’t know why. To this day, they can’t pinpoint why.”

Daugherty takes advantage of the limelight coaching provides her to promote cardiac disease awareness. She serves as a spokesperson for the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association and recently accepted the organization’s Public Spirit Award, which will now permanently bear her name.

“June’s willingness to help the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association as a spokesperson is helping educate thousands of Americans about heart disease and the risk of sudden cardiac arrest,” says SCAA Executive Director Chris Chiames. “We need more public figures like June to step up to this challenge, and naming the SCAA Public Spirit Award after June is in recognition that she is a role model for others.”

Daugherty has taken on other public awareness initiatives including the annual “Cougs Have Heart” game co-sponsored by the Seattle-based Hope Heart Institute and Spokane’s Sacred Heart Medical Center. Daugherty has teamed up with Hope Heart to conduct youth basketball clinics in the Seattle area, something that Burt has participated in.

“When people say you’re crazy to be coaching I use that as an opportunity to explain to them what sudden cardiac arrest is, how prevalent heart disease is, and how we all need to get behind it and help raise more awareness and more funds for education for the doctors and also to take care of ourselves,” Daugherty says. “Like with Kayla, you just never know when even one of your own student-athletes is going to be affected, or maybe someone on your staff, or yourself.”

Rather than be limited by their heart conditions, both Daugherty and Burt have found new ways of reaching out to others.

“For me, I just really believe, things happen for a reason,” says the coach. “You don’t always know the reason but take advantage of it, see the positive, and hopefully I can help somebody else who is going through this.”