A Miracle on College Ave.

With quick actions and some help from fate, Tufts athletic trainers and Medford police were right where they needed to be to save the life of Charles DeVirgilio, E80

If the traffic on I-93 North hadn’t been so heavy that day. If College Avenue hadn’t been under construction. If the Tufts men’s lacrosse team hadn’t been headed to the tournament final. If so many things hadn’t aligned at the right time, Charles DeVirgilio, E80, might not be alive today.

On May 21, DeVirgilio, 65, had just finished his weekly workout session in Somerville, Massachusetts, and was driving back to the martial arts and boxing gym he owns in Arlington. The highway was packed, and not wanting to be late to teach his afternoon classes, he took the Route 16 exit through Medford. 

He knew the neighborhood well, having studied mechanical engineering at Tufts and later worked nearby in Ball Square. The route would take him near the field where he played football in his Jumbo days. 

The last thing he remembers about that Tuesday was stopping so some pedestrians could cross the road in front of the Tisch Sports and Fitness Center. The rest is blank. He remembers no pain, no shortness of breath. Just nothing. “One moment the light switch was on, and then it was off,” he said.

As fate would have it, Medford police officers Zachary Pierre and Padraig Calnan were working a construction detail on that very section of College Avenue when DeVirgilio’s truck veered into the traffic cones. They could see DeVirgilio slumped over the steering wheel and tried to control the vehicle as it came to rest against a telephone pole.

Seeing that DeVirgilio was unconscious, one of the officers called to a few members of the Tufts baseball team who had run up, telling them to locate an Automated External Defibrillator (AED).

The players knew exactly where to go, as the fitness center is well stocked with AEDs, including one in the lobby. 

Lacrosse player Callum Wood, A25, saw the baseball players sprinting in to grab the AED and asked what was going on. He figured they might not know how to work the device. Luckily, he knew someone who did.

‘There’s an Emergency Outside’

Tufts athletic trainer Lauren Bracken had been on the field at 8 a.m. that morning for the lacrosse team practice. The team’s upcoming Division III championship game in Philadelphia meant they were one of the few Tufts sports teams who were still on campus in late May. 

So Wood knew that Bracken was in the fitness center, tending to her players in the therapy room and packing supplies for the big trip. Brett Hayes, the assistant director of sports medicine, was also there. Wood rushed in and told them they needed to help with an AED. “There’s an emergency outside,” he said. “You guys have got to get out there.”

The trainers reached the street just as one of the officers used his baton to break DeVirgilio’s passenger-side window. Medford police Sgt. Jordan Cannava, who had been up the hill on Frederick Avenue and responded to the call, arrived in time to help pull DeVirgilio from the car. They checked his vital signs: No breathing, no pulse. “He was gone,” Hayes said.

Hayes’ medical training kicked in. He started performing chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while Bracken readied the AED.

Although the two had encountered serious sports traumas in their careers, including brain injuries and spinal fractures, neither had performed CPR or used a defibrillator other than in training. “And it’s nothing like the training,” Hayes said. The difference between practicing on a manikin and treating a human being really struck them when Bracken fired the AED.

“Charles literally levitated off the ground,” Hayes said, “which was the wildest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Despite the seeming chaos of the glass-strewn scene, the police officers and the athletic trainers managed to work together smoothly. 

“We were all kind of collaborating with each other like we had known each other for years,” Cannava said. “I think it goes back to everyone being there for one purpose: to save this man’s life.” 

Exterior of Tisch Sports and Fitness Center

DeVirgilio said he is thankful that his truck came to rest where it did outside the Tisch Sports and Fitness Center, where people with the right skills could help him. Photo: Anna Miller

When the ambulance arrived, the EMTs had Bracken continue monitoring the AED while Hayes kept up the CPR on DeVirgilio. “And he came back,” Hayes said. He could see DeVirgilio begin to move his mouth as “he was trying to get air and breathe again.” The EMTs quickly moved him to the ambulance for the trip to Massachusetts General Hospital.

Hayes, still shaken from the experience, went home that night and held his children, ages 1 and 2, a little longer than he normally would. 

“I just realized how precious life is and you shouldn’t take it for granted,” he said. 

Another Chance at Life

At the hospital, doctors put DeVirgilio into an induced coma. When he woke up the next day, weak and sore and hooked up to countless tubes and wires, he learned that a blockage in the main artery to his heart had led to his cardiac arrest. 

“They call that the widow maker artery,” he said. “And Nancy, my wife, told me today that only 12% of the people that have that situation occur survive.”

It was not lost on him that his detour through Tufts landed him in a spot where people had the knowledge and tools to help him. “If I had not had this episode in the exact place and time that it happened, I would not be here,” he said. “Their quick reaction and resuscitating me basically allowed me to live.”

When Hayes visited DeVirgilio in the hospital a few days later, the patient was already able to walk laps around the hallway. They talked about his recovery and the Red Sox. 

When one of the nurses came in to do a routine check, Hayes took the opportunity to ask DeVirgilio’s wife how he was really doing. 

“She goes, ‘He’s exactly who he was before the accident.’ And that really made me feel good.”

By the time he was back home in Lynn, DeVirgilio was thinking about his connections to Tufts and Tufts athletes. Back in the day, he played football with John Casey, who went on to become the Tufts baseball coach for four decades. More recently, the Tufts student boxing club has been training at his Arlington gym.

He was also thinking of how to show his gratitude. Aside from Red Sox tickets for Hayes and his wife (he even pulled strings to get a shoutout for Hayes up on the scoreboard), he offered free classes at his school, Alton Street Boxing & Fitness, to the hospital’s ICU team, the police officers, and the Tufts trainers.

As much as he believes in the physical and mental benefits of martial arts and has touched many lives in the community through his business, the father of two and grandfather of three said he intends to spend less time at work and more time with his wife, “who’s just so supportive and such a rock in my existence.”

“It’s illuminating that I got another chance at life, and so I realized what I need to do with that,” he said.      

It took a while for Bracken, who is just two years into her career as a trainer, to process what had happened. She put it out of her mind while she focused on the trip to Philadelphia and taking care of the lacrosse team, who went on to win the championship. When she got back, she was able to meet—and hug—the man she helped save.

Thinking on it now, Bracken takes pride in the student athletes who acted so quickly. “They had a big impact on how fast we were able to get out there,” she said. “So I think they were a huge part of it as well, even though they probably don’t think they are.”

She’s proud, too, of the career she’s chosen. Not many people, she said, understand that an athletic trainer is more than “somebody that stands on the sidelines and tapes ankles.” 

“We actually are medical professionals,” she said, “and can help.”

Just ask Charles DeVirgilio.

Back to Top