EKU head coach Walt Wells returns to sidelines after nearly losing his life

It’s often said that football is a game of inches.

Each second that ticks away? Crucial.

You’re responsible for the task in front of you — and your teammate beside you.

A blown assignment here — or a missed assignment there — is often the difference between triumphant victory and heartbreaking loss.

The same could be said for Eastern Kentucky University head football coach Walt Wells, but — in this case — it had nothing to do with anything on a football field.

The Colonels were getting ready for the start of the 2022 season, which was just five days away. On what seemed like a typical Sunday morning in late August, Wells was putting together a box to send to his 90-year-old mother.

“Honestly, I was sitting at the desk and got up,” Wells recalls. “The next thing I know, two and a half days later, I’m waking up at the hospital.”

The night before that dreadful Sunday morning, the Colonels held their annual fan day to celebrate the start of the upcoming season. After the event, Bowling had stopped by Wells’ office to drop off a box of pizza. Wells wasn’t there, but Bowling noticed the fridge — which typically contains water and Gatorade bottles — was empty.

“I always make my to do list the day before,” explains Bowling. “First thing was to fill up Coach’s fridge. That morning, on August 28th, I was very adamant on getting his fridge filled up for whatever reason.”

The next morning, Bowling stocked a golf cart full of water and Gatorade and waited for Wells to arrive. Eventually, he saw Wells’ truck parked in the parking lot. Bowling met up with Wells and the two walked up to his office together. While Bowling was restocking the fridge, he heard what sounded like a sneeze from the other side of the wall in Wells’ office. Not thinking much of it at the time, Bowling finished restocking the fridge.

“When I got done, I asked Coach, I was like ‘You and me shut the door?’ His door was open. He normally wants it closed,” says Bowling. “I peeked in when he didn’t answer and I knew something was terribly wrong.”

That’s when Bowling discovered the sneeze he thought he heard, was actually Coach Wells suffering a heart attack. Wells was laying on the floor, unconscious.

“I walked in there I see him. I give him a quick Are you okay?” recalls an emotional Bowling.

Bowling acted quickly, having an assistant coach call 911 while summoning the team’s head athletic trainer, Kristen Peterson.

“It was it was it was very, very scary,” says Bowling. “I called his wife, which is very hard to tell his wife that something urgent is going on and she needed to get there as quick as she could.”

Walt’s wife, Jen — who says she’s notorious for not answering her phone — says she felt compelled to take the call.

“I said, Thomas, is he gone?” says Jen. “And he goes, ‘Miss Wells, We’re trying to save him. My daughter was with me in the car. And I was like, ‘I think he’s dead.’ And she’s like, ‘Me, too.’ We were just devastated.”

Peterson quickly went into action, hooking wells up to a defibrillator and performing emergency CPR until medics would arrive just minutes later.

“[Kristen] says ‘He doesn’t have a pulse, so let’s flip him over.’ Our minds go to the immediately wrong thing,” says Bowling. “We were trying to do whatever we can to bring him back and let the the medical team do their job.”

Dr. Amartya Kundu — an interventional cardiologist at University of Kentucky Hospital — says Wells suffered from cardiac arrest.

“That essentially means that his heart stopped beating and — for a while — he was dead,” explains Dr. Kundu. “So the immediate actions of all the bystanders, especially with early CPR, recognizing that he’s in cardiac arrest and treating it early — that helped bring him back.”

Dr. Kundu and his staff at UK Hospital found the culprit — a 95% blockage to the main artery of Wells’ heart.

“Overall, this didn’t happen in one day,” says Dr. Kundu. “Blockage is usually built up over time. That’s probably what happened to coach Wells as well. It was brewing for a while, and then on that particular day, just probably acutely blocked off the blood flow, and that caused him to go into that abnormal heart rhythm, which caused a cardiac arrest.”

Jen Wells says she wasn’t particularly surprised to receive the phone call from Bowling, citing Walt’s family history. However, Dr. Kundu says outside of getting regular check-ups, there’s often little that can be done and, oftentimes, cardiac arrests can occur with no warning signs or symptoms.

“Cardiac arrest claims the lives of approximately 350,000 Americans every year, and 90% of them don’t make it,” says Dr. Kundu. “Of the 10% that do, the likelihood of them walking out of the hospital is about somewhere between 30 to 35%. Literally everything had to be aligned together in the right place and the right time for him to have survived this.”

Dr. Kundu and his staff were able to successfully perform surgery on Wells, going through his wrist to place a stent near his heart — avoiding open-heart surgery.

However, the following days for Coach Wells were crucial for his recovery. Damage to his heart, kidneys or brain were all still very real possibilities.

Nearly two days after dropping lifelessly to the floor in his office, Wells was awake and alert — breathing on his own.

“Well, when he came back to, he started being his normal self,” Jen recalls. “The nursing staff was like, ‘Is this him?’ Because…’ and I go ‘Oh, yes, this is him,’” she laughs. “It’s good to have him back.”

Meanwhile, after Bowling had gotten word that Wells was awake and alert, he learned Chief of Staff Gary McPeak — who took over as acting head coach in Wells’ absence — was headed to UK Hospital to visit Wells. Bowling felt compelled to go with him to see the man whose life he’d just saved.

“He was going down to the hospital to take some gift cards and letters that our players have written and I was like, ‘I need to go with you. If there’s any chance I can see him, it would be good for me,’” says Bowling. “I didn’t expect to be able to see him because it was only two days later. It was miracle almost.”

Wells, recalling the emotional reunion with Bowling.

“[The doctors] told me what all went down and how it went down,” says Wells. “Thomas was there. I talked to Thomas and you know,” says Wells, pausing as tears begin to fill his eyes.

“We walked in the hospital room, and he’s sitting there with his hair all spiked up. He was sitting there and turned and looked at me said, ‘Thomas, did you say my life?’” recalls Bowling. “I was like, ‘Coach, I tried my best! You’re fridge was empty, man. I had to fill it up!’ It was an emotional moment for both of us. His wife was there, too. I gave her a big hug.”

A perfect set of circumstances, that led to a miracle.

“I’m just thankful the good Lord put me there,” says Bowling of that fateful day in late August. “Everything happens for a reason. There was a reason his fridge was empty and there’s a reason I was so adamant about filling up his fridge and going upstairs with him that day. So I just think thank God for putting me in that place.”

“I mean, I think you see God’s hand on everything that’s happened to me and the reason I’m here, so I try to be thankful for that every day,” says Wells. “I mean, people can say whatever they want to say, but I believe that God put Thomas right where he was to save my life.”