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After brush with death, Utah State's Danny Berger ready to serve others

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 3:07 a.m. MDT

Utah State University basketball player Danny Berger speaks with the press during his recovery at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Dec. 7. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Utah State University basketball player Danny Berger speaks with the press during his recovery at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Dec. 7. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Facing death can teach a man a lot about life.

That’s been the case for Danny Berger, the 6-foot-6 Utah State forward who collapsed and nearly died during a basketball practice last December.

Thanks to the quick actions of trainer Mike Williams and a host of others, along with a series of timely events, Berger lived.

Many, including the 22-year-old, believe his survival was a miracle.

Since then, the junior from Medford, Ore., has continued to ponder what happened, considering the blessings received and discovering the lessons learned. Others, including Williams, Berger’s father, Brian, and his LDS bishop, have also gained new perspective on life as a result of Berger’s experience.

In an effort to pay it forward, Berger continues to share his story to raise awareness about the importance of automated external defibrillators, a device that saved his life.

Utah State University basketball player Danny Berger speaks with the press during his recovery at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Dec. 7. At left is Dr. Jared Bunch of the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Utah State University basketball player Danny Berger speaks with the press during his recovery at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Dec. 7. At left is Dr. Jared Bunch of the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

“It affected my life tremendously. I have a new perspective on a lot of things,” Berger said in a recent interview. “There is not just one reason or purpose. I think there’s a lot. It’s a matter of figuring those things out as I go on. … In general it was extremely faith-building for those that were closely related, including my family, my roommates, my teammates and close friends. It seemed like each person’s faith in God was strengthened.”

Health update

For those who missed his ordeal, Berger collapsed near the end of a practice in preparation for a Dec. 4 game at BYU. He went into full cardiac arrest. Williams revived him using an AED while several others assisted in getting the junior to Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah, where he remained for the next four days. Before he left, a defibrillator was surgically implanted into his chest.

Utah State Aggies guard/forward Danny Berger (12) passes around Weber State Wildcats guard/forward Davion Berry (15) in Logan, Nov. 24. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah State Aggies guard/forward Danny Berger (12) passes around Weber State Wildcats guard/forward Davion Berry (15) in Logan, Nov. 24. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

On Dec. 8, Berger rejoined his teammates and coaches at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum for an emotional game against Western Oregon.

Berger eventually returned to class and anticipates playing for the Aggies next season. Utah State expects the NCAA to grant Berger a medical hardship exception to regain his junior year of eligibility.

“I feel normal, like before. I’m getting used to the device in my chest. I don’t feel any side effects. I feel really good,” Berger said. “I’m starting to play a little bit, getting used to the contact again. In the future I don’t think anything should hold me back from playing 100 percent.”

Dr. Jared Bunch, a heart rhythm specialist at the Intermountain Heart Institute at Intermountain Medical Center, said Berger’s case is extraordinary. In many cases like Berger’s, patients struggle with short-term memory loss or have trouble controlling emotion, Bunch said.

Utah State Aggies guard/forward Danny Berger (12) drives on Weber State Wildcats guard/forward Davion Berry (15) in Logan, Nov. 24. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah State Aggies guard/forward Danny Berger (12) drives on Weber State Wildcats guard/forward Davion Berry (15) in Logan, Nov. 24. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

“Danny was completely intact like it had never occurred. I’ve been involved in cardiac arrest research for 14 years, and his resuscitation was one of the best or the best that I’ve seen. It’s a tribute to Mike Williams and his preparation. Danny’s body never had a chance to become injured from the lack of blood flow because they did such a remarkable job,” said Bunch, a lifelong Aggie fan and alum. “It’s truly amazing to me. Everything had to be in place … and utilized to perfection to get him to me and make my job really easy. We struggle at even our best centers and best training facilities to replicate something like that. Normally we can’t. There are delays somewhere.

"It truly was a miracle.”

Perspectives and purposes

While life has started to feel normal again, Berger, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has sought to understand the spiritual lessons he gained from his near-death experience. While some insights are personal, he didn’t mind sharing others.

First, Berger said, everything happens for a purpose.

“If we are paying attention, if we are listening, we can figure out what those reasons are and learn from them,” Berger said. “It’s not like I was a bad kid or anything, but you can always make improvements. Sometimes we forget how fortunate we are to have the restored gospel."

Second, life is fragile, so cherish your time with loved ones.

“Anything can happen at any time. That’s never been as real as it is now,” Berger said. “I can’t stress enough how important relationships are, especially with family.”

Since returning almost two years ago from his LDS mission to Detroit, Berger says he’s been consumed with his own life — and that needs to change.

“As a missionary you are not thinking about yourself. You are serving others. When you do that, you grow so much. This past year and a half I’ve felt kind of selfish,” said Berger, whose girlfriend, Kylee Coleman, just departed on a mission in Brazil. “This was a huge reminder to think less about myself and serve others in multiple ways. It’s something that’s stood out to me, kind of a wake-up call.”

A blessing

Amid the blur of events following his collapse, Berger was grateful for the many people who provided support or medical attention. He was especially grateful to receive a priesthood blessing from his LDS bishop, Steve Carroll, and second counselor, Larry Hepworth, before being flown to Murray.

“It worked out perfectly,” Berger said. “There were so many things like that that strengthened my faith.”

Bishop Carroll was also grateful to assist his ward member.

“I don’t remember much about the blessing … but it was a wonderful experience,” Carroll said. “It was a true blessing to be able to give him a blessing of health and comfort.”

Brian Berger

While Danny Berger was being flown to Murray, his bishop called Berger's father, Brian, who was traveling across the Nevada desert on his way to Provo for the USU-BYU game the following day. When informed of what had happened, Brian Berger asked a highway patrolman for an escort to Salt Lake. He was told to drive to Elko and fly to Salt Lake City. Berger opted to stay in his vehicle and was soon racing along at high speeds, consumed with worry about his son.

“Do you have children yourself? Then you can probably answer your own question then,” Brian said when asked about his reaction to the phone call. “It’s been very difficult, but I’m thankful it came out the way it did. It’s a tough phone call to get.”

He was later pulled over by another patrolman and not issued a ticket, but warned to slow down. Eventually he reached the hospital in Murray.

“The whole thing is still pretty traumatic to think about, what could have happened,” Brian said. “You don’t think about this happening to one of your children. It just shocked me.”

As father and son later discussed what unfolded on that unforgettable day, they have looked for a silver lining. At times they would like to decline the interview requests and put the experience behind them, but they also want to help save lives in the future.

“Philosophically, you’ve got to try to look at events and find something positive,” Brian said. “Our plan has been to try to raise awareness for the having AEDs available and the training to use them. … If he can just save one life, it would be worth all the interviews in the world. That’s how we’re looking at it.”

Save a life

The AED that saved Berger’s life was at Utah State thanks to former NBA basketball player Ryan Gomes and a charity called Hoops for Heart Health.

When Gomes was a teenager, playing AAU basketball, he watched a teammate die after collapsing during warm-ups. It was later determined that his friend’s death could have been prevented with a defibrillator.

In 2006, Gomes created Hoops for Heart Health with a goal to put AEDs in recreational facilities around the country. On the charity’s website, Gomes states, “If we can save just one life, it makes all our efforts worth it.”

Since his recovery, Berger has joined in the cause to get more AEDs into places where they can save lives. The USU basketball player has also become involved with SADS (Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes) Foundation, where he has met with young people dealing with generic heart rhythm abnormalities, Bunch said.

“I want to do whatever I can to get the word out there because it obviously saved my life,” Berger said. “It may be one in 10,000 people, but that one really matters because that one was me.”

In late February, Berger and Williams were guests of honor in the Utah State Senate and House. Williams received the Heartsaver Hero Award from the American Heart Association and their appearance helped usher a bill through the House that would put forth $300,000 of funding to secure AEDs for state agencies, schools and colleges.

An AED ranges in price from $800 to $2,000 and is easy to use, Williams said. The USU trainer believes Berger’s efforts will eventually save more lives.

“If God had wanted Danny, he would have gone. There is a higher purpose and message,” Williams said. “Somewhere down the line this will save somebody else. Somewhere they will have an AED where they wouldn’t have if this hadn’t happened.”

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