How An Athletic Trainer and Opposing Player Saved John Holcomb's Life


Holcomb (middle) collapsed during the fourth quarter of Clemson's MCLA game against Indiana.

John Holcomb woke up in the middle of the night Sunday at Lynchburg General Hospital hooked up to IVs and confused about his surroundings.

Why was he in the hospital? Where was his equipment?

The last thing Holcomb remembered was scoring in the fourth quarter of the Clemson men’s lacrosse team’s MCLA matchup with Indiana, charging down the alley to give his team a 10-3 lead. He subbed in and out of the game shortly afterward.

And then everything went blank.

In his hospital room, Holcomb turned his head to find his father, John, and mother, Crissy, who promptly showed him the results of a CT scan on his brain and informed him what had transpired in the minutes and hours following his collapse on the field during the neutral-site game at Liberty. She told her son that he had lost awareness near midfield, stared off into the distance, collapsed and started seizing as fans and teammates quickly shifted their attention away from the game and onto him.

Soon after Holcomb heard of his seizure, he learned of the people that helped save his life. Liberty athletic trainer Kira Turner responded first. Harris Jaffe, a long-stick midfielder for Indiana and Wilderness First Responder with EMT training, jumped in to help Turner stabilize Holcomb’s breathing before an ambulance arrived 10-15 minutes later.

Holcomb listened as his parents described events that, had it not been for a few last-minute decisions, might never have occurred — and how close his life hung in the balance.

“I was worried that we were going to lose him,” said John Holcomb, who nearly missed the game to attend an NCAA Division III basketball tournament game for his alma mater, Wabash, in West Virginia. “We were worried we weren’t going to be able to help him fast enough. God was at work on that field, that’s for sure.”

The story of Holcomb’s seizure in the snow Saturday at Liberty is one of sudden trauma, but also one of teamwork in crisis. Turner’s quick reaction and Jaffe’s steadying presence — as a member of the opposing team, no less — helped save his life.

Had he not convulsed on that field and on that specific day, he might not have survived. The same could be said if Jaffe or Turner were not present.

“He could have had a seizure in a car when he was driving,” John Holcomb said. “He could have had it in his room, by himself. There are a million places where it could have happened that if people weren't there to help him get through it, it could have been a different ending.”

“I’m so grateful for their teamwork in a time of crisis,” Holcomb said. “It was just something people didn't really expect. Harris saved my life. I can't really put into words what Harris means to me, but me and him will have a connection for the rest of our lives.”

Clemson was on a high heading into Saturday’s matchup with Indiana, having taken down No. 1-ranked Liberty the night before on the Flames’ home field. Holcomb played a critical role in the victory, providing a highlight-reel behind-the-back assist to teammate and friend Coston Pendleton at the end of the third quarter — a game in which Holcomb moved from midfield to attack to replace a few missing starters.

According to Clemson coach Buff Grubb, Holcomb made similar plays with ease. Nicknamed “Agent Zero” by his teammates, the Furman transfer was known for his creativity and his ability to find the back of the cage or help others do so.

“He’s emerged as a significant contributor this year,” Grubb said. “He’s a very creative player for us and he’s become really popular with the guys here.”

Flurries floated around the stadium as Clemson prepared to face Indiana in another quality MCLA matchup the next day. Holcomb dodged and scored with 4:15 left in the second quarter to give the Tigers an 8-3 lead at halftime, when the team huddled under bleachers typically used for the Flames’ soccer team.

At that point, there were no signs that something was amiss. Holcomb joked that he did not want to leave the comfort of the bleachers and return to the field.

“Let’s go! Let’s go!” shouted Grubb as he headed toward the field.

“You’re reminding me of my dad getting me up for school in the fifth grade,” Holcomb fired back.

“How’d that work out?” Grubb asked.

“I got up, alright,” Holcomb said, laughing.

Holcomb scored again early in the fourth quarter to make it 10-3. He subbed out and then returned for Pendleton. With less than 12 minutes remaining, Grubb and Indiana coach Austin Jarrett noticed something peculiar. Holcomb was standing four yards away from the faceoff stripe as Clemson held the ball, looking in no particular direction.

Then he fell to the ground and his body started shaking.

“I saw a kid with his leg straight out and it was shaking,” Jarrett said. “I was like, ‘Oh man, that's a bad cramp.’ Then, people started yelling. You could tell from the people that were right around them, they were freaking out.”

Doctors at Lynchburg General Hospital later revealed that a low-grade mass was pressing on the right side of Holcomb’s brain — the side commonly associated with seizures.

As Grubb rushed onto the field to check on Holcomb, Turner, a graduate student at Liberty, sprinted past him. She was the first person to reach Holcomb, who was lying on his back.

“I ran out to the field because that’s what we trained for all through undergrad or masters,” Turner told the school. “We have to have confidence and comfort in knowing that if we have to respond to an emergency situation, we know how to … and adrenaline kicks in.”

Turner saw that Holcomb was not breathing and immediately began chest compressions. His pulse was faint. He likely had fluid blocking his airways. Jaffe joined Turner from the opposite side of the field to help reposition Holcomb, turning his body to the side and stabilizing his head and neck as they resuscitated him.

Jarrett remained on the phone with emergency services. John Holcomb answered questions about his son’s medical history in between breaths.

“I just tried to calm everybody down since there were a lot of moving pieces,” Jaffe said. “I just got everyone on the same page so that we were moving in one forward direction and not eight different directions all at once. I was taught slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

Turner and Jaffe were able to get Holcomb to breathe regularly again, but those 5-10 minutes seemed much longer to those that waited for the ambulance to arrive. The Indiana club lacrosse player and Liberty athletic trainer had never met, but they worked in tandem to save Holcomb’s life.

“He was all business,” Grubb said of Jaffe. “He and Kira were comparing notes and very quickly agreed to the proper etiquette at the time. I was very impressed with their performance. It was pretty cohesive.”

Members of both MCLA teams circled together, locked arms and prayed for Holcomb as the ambulance darted away from the field and toward the hospital. The game was suspended. They took busses back to the hotel. Grubb fielded a call from a worried parent, relaying the message that Holcomb had suffered a seizure, but he was stable.

Meanwhile, word started to trickle out on social media about the event, and Jaffe’s role in saving Holcomb’s life. Jaffe, a graduate of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who was on campus during the 2018 shooting that claimed the lives of 17 classmates, reflected on another traumatic moment, but one he was able to minimize.

“I’m thankful for Kira and that I was at the right place at the right time,” he said. “Everyone is taught the same basic things in the medical world so that if there is something like this, we can all be on the same page and work congruently. I’m just happy we were able to save John. We did it together.”

Jarrett tweeted hours later that Jaffe nearly did not make the trip from Indiana to Virginia. He slept through his alarm. In need of players, Jarrett took matters into his own hands. He drove to Jaffe’s house, was led inside by roommates and knocked on his door.

“Let’s just say he got me out of my bed and onto the bus,” Jaffe joked. “I’m not a hero. I’m just a normal kid who almost missed the bus. I was just at the right place, at the right time, with the right training.”

Holcomb, was released from the hospital Sunday morning and is now resting at home in Nashville, Tennessee. Jaffe got in touch with Holcomb’s brother, Ben, who put the unlikely protagonist on speaker phone as the family drove from Lynchburg to Nashville. Together, the two lacrosse players forever linked talked about their gratitude for each other and about an episode that could have ended far worse.

“You don't really know what to say after something like that,” Holcomb said. “Harris is one of the coolest dudes that I've talked to, so hopefully I can meet him one day. That’s definitely one of my goals for sure.”

Jaffe repeatedly deflected the praise and the label of hero, which according to Jarrett perfectly describes his personality.

“He’s not out for himself,” Jarrett said. “He’s not a selfish player and that translates into the rest of his life. He demonstrated it right there in the best way.”

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