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Monday, May 18, 2009
Updated: May 19, 12:51 PM ET
Coach, nurse forever connected

By Elizabeth Merrill
ESPN.com

They planted a crape myrtle tree in front of the school for Eileen Bowden because it would grow purple blossoms, and she loved that color. As a nurse for the Santa Clara, Calif., schools, Bowden knew just about everybody in the district. She commuted an hour and a half each day to take care of 3,000 kids, to assure Bay Area babies, in her Jersey accent, that every scrape and sniffle would be OK. Despite all those connections, Bowden never really knew John Rahbar, the softball coach at Santa Clara High. Now Rahbar will never forget her.

He stood at a memorial service for Bowden two weeks ago, a heart monitor attached to his 40-year-old body. He wanted to speak, but what would he say? That it was fate that she was there on April 28 to help administer CPR when his heart stopped? That no one can fathom why Bowden collapsed a few moments later and died in an ambulance?

John Rahbar
Santa Clara High School softball coach John Rahbar suffered a heart attack April 28, and was revived with the help of school nurse Eileen Bowden and Santa Clara police officer Jake Malae.

Rahbar didn't have a speech prepared. So he thanked her, for letting him see his 2-year-old daughter, Mia, and 9-month-old son, Dylan, again -- thanked her, for a second chance. Doctors later studied his heart monitor's activity from that day. For those few minutes during the speech, his heart was beating much faster.

For three weeks, through several memorial services, Bowden's family has tried to come to terms with why she died in such a freak occurrence, a split-second turn of events. But they aren't surprised that her last act was pumping life into somebody else's body.

"I'm sure if she knew how much she did help, she wouldn't have done it any differently," says Bowden's sister, Rosemary Grant. "If somebody said that there was a good chance she was not going to make it, it wouldn't have stopped her. Nothing really stopped her.

"She would be so pleased to know those little ones are going to still have their dad."

No outward signs

The morning of April 28 was different for Rahbar. It was his wife Lilly's 40th birthday. He bought flowers and handed her a plate stamped with their children's tiny handprints. The rest of his day was supposed to be late-spring routine -- a work shift at Double D's Sports Grille, a run home to change, then softball practice. The thing Rahbar loved most about being a coach at Santa Clara High School was the sense of community. He could leave for work in the morning, and a neighbor would shout out congratulations if the Bruins had won the night before. It made him feel connected, a part of something.

He wasn't always sure he was made for the job, though. Before he became head coach in 2002, he was a young bachelor, chuckling at the absurdity of coaching girls softball. "One," he told a friend trying to recruit him, "I know nothing about softball. And two, I know nothing about 13-year-old girls." But Rahbar was a natural. He could be intense and still make the girls laugh. His players called him "Johnny Boy" or "Coach John." He looked a bit younger than his 40 years and, though he didn't work out regularly, was in decent enough shape to run with the 17-year-olds.

There were no outward warnings that his heart would suddenly stop in the middle of softball practice. But he had hints. His father died of a heart attack at 47. And when Lilly urged him to get a physical last year, he learned he had borderline high cholesterol.

It was just after 4 o'clock on April 28 when Rahbar went to fetch some foul balls behind a fence. There was a gate he couldn't climb, so he had to go the long way around. He was jogging back to the field, near the front of the school, when he collapsed. He considers himself lucky -- luckier than his father -- that he was stricken in a public place. "There was no one to give [my father] CPR," he says.

Eileen Bowden
Eileen Bowden, a nurse for the Santa Clara school district, helped save Rahbar's life. Moments later she collapsed and died. "I'm sure if she knew how much she did help, she wouldn't have done it any differently," said her sister, Rosemary Grant.

But two people were there to help Rahbar. Santa Clara police officer Jake Malae was leaving a truancy meeting on campus that day when a group of students flagged him down. Malae immediately recognized the man on the ground. They grew up and played sports together in Santa Clara, and Malae lives down the street from the Rahbars. Malae radioed for an ambulance, then started CPR when he heard a voice from behind. It was Bowden, who had just left the same meeting. Could she help?

She took over the chest compressions; Malae administered rescue breathing. Right away, Malae says, Bowden brought a sense of calm to the situation. Rescue workers arrived and used a defibrillator on Rahbar. After two shocks, his heart started beating. It was the first time Malae, after 11 years on the Santa Clara police force, had administered CPR.

"It was pretty amazing, in that moment," Malae says, "to see them not only get his heart going, but it seems like he was stabilizing."

Roughly three minutes after emergency responders got Rahbar's heart going, Bowden inexplicably collapsed on a concrete platform. Another ambulance was called. She was in and out of consciousness, Malae says, but was able to talk to the rescue workers.

That night, Malae drove to the hospital to check on Rahbar, then headed back to the station to change. His sergeant told him there was some bad news. He immediately thought it was Rahbar.

When he heard that Bowden had died on the way to the hospital, Malae was floored. On several occasions since then, he has thought of the nurse and cried.

"I didn't know her when she was alive," he says. "But I feel connected to her, if that makes sense. We're going to be connected for the rest of my life. I've had a lot of time to think about it. I've come to the realization that there's no making sense of it. Because I've tried. … I kind of take solace in the fact that Eileen's last act on earth helped save somebody's life."

Nurse Eileen's legacy

The initial explanation that her family heard was that Bowden died of a massive heart attack. It seems so strange to them. Yes, she was 59 and kept a nonstop schedule. But Bowden was no doubt the most health-conscious of the four siblings, a vegetarian who practiced yoga and had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro when she was inching past middle age.

Bowden took Grant on a 30-mile hike for her little sister's 30th birthday.

"I thought I would die halfway through," Grant says. "But it was great when we were done. I would say she was the adventurer. She talked us all into doing things we would've never done on our own."

The last time they spoke, the sisters laughed and planned for a cruise they would take this summer for their mom's 85th birthday. Betty Bowden was also a nurse in their home state of New Jersey. During the past three weeks, the family has heard all the stories of Eileen's work: how she doted over elderly people in their last days in hospice, how she rescued a stray dog that wandered down to the school.

Late last week, the staff at Cabrillo Middle School was still sharing Eileen moments. Principal Stan Garber and health assistant Sheila Ryckewaert chuckled about the time Bowden was so eager to do scoliosis screening that she walked right into the boys' locker room, much to the shock of the P.E. coach.

"She was so take-charge, I don't even think she realized she was in the boys' locker room," Garber says. "She was just busy helping one person and going on to the next one. She had one fast-paced existence."

But her biggest love was her 13-year-old daughter, Joanna, whom she had adopted from China. Family always came first. Bowden was especially close to her father, who died of a heart attack at age 68. He fell ill on the Jersey shores during a family reunion. Bowden had tended to her father, and kept him calm on the ambulance ride.

"I think we all have different talents and different gifts," Grant says. "Hers was that ability to kind of shift right away into helping mode, regardless of how emotionally connected she was."

"Just in awe"

Dylan Rahbar took his first steps late last week. It happened after a softball game. John Rahbar was sending stats to the local newspaper. The Rahbars' only son took two steps to the couch and fell into Lilly's arms. "Look! Look!" she said to John.

"I'm just in awe, I guess," Rahbar says. "Knowing I might not have been here -- it just really soaks in and makes you appreciate it more."

Rahbar can't go back to work yet, but he watches Santa Clara play from the bleachers. Whenever he gets worked up about an at-bat or an inning, Lilly puts Dylan in Rahbar's arms so he'll stay calm.

"Every game, we've been playing our hearts out for John," says Lauren Maslak, the team's catcher. "Just seeing him in the bleachers, watching our games, it's been really hard."

The team heard the sirens on April 28, and had noticed earlier that Rahbar was taking a long time to come back to practice. But they never imagined that the man in the ambulance was their coach. He saw Malae a week after it happened, and wrapped the cop in a hug. Rahbar said he has been told, by various medical people, that he had a 1 percent chance of living had Malae and Bowden not been there to help.

Rahbar doesn't know why it happened, to himself, to Bowden. The Santa Clara County coroner's office is still investigating the cause of her death.

He is trying to slowly get back to his life. He was on the phone late last week while his daughter, Mia, pranced around him, singing "Daddy, Daddy." The monitor was gone. His heart thumped on.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.