Mike Papale's second chance
By Bill Cloutier
Assistant Sports Editor
HAMDEN — Mike Papale Jr. never imagined he’d spend his college basketball days sitting behind the bench.
Papale was a talented guard at Sheehan High, already being recruited by Division II and III teams. He dreamed of following in the footsteps of his father, who was a prolific collegiate scorer.
But those dreams were dashed on an August morning in 2006 when Papale suffered an unimaginable and unforeseeable heart attack.
To say that Papale nearly died that day is by no means a stretch. Twice his heart stopped beating, the first time for over 9 minutes.
“Basketball was a huge part of my life, and it hurt not being able to play, but I realized that surviving the heart attack was more important than anything,” Papale said. “I’m actually fortunate.”
Papale now serves as a manager for the Quinnipiac men’s basketball team. Bobcat fans can see him shagging balls or setting up chairs for the team during timeouts. What they don’t see is the work he does behind the scenes or how his goals have changed.
Papale has now changed his focus on becoming a college basketball coach while trying to spread a message that all major facilities should be equipped with defibrillators, a device that saved his life.
Papale has spoken at the state capital and traveled to Washington as part of NBA player, and Waterbury native, Ryan Gomes’ Hoops for Heart Health. Both have become advocates for the supply of defibrillators and heart testing for individuals.
Papale doesn’t remember suffering the heart attack. Honing his basketball skills, he spent that morning like he usually did, training at the Choate Rosemary Hall gymnasium from 6:30 to 8 a.m.
“The last thing I remember, we had worked out and I changed my shirt, which was sweaty,” Papale said. “Then I coached a game and (officiated) a game, but I don’t remember doing it at my father’s basketball camp at the Wallingford Park & Recreation Department.
“At 10:30, I was sitting on the bleachers with a bunch of kids around me, and I fell over. No one knew what was happening. I had no idea I had a problem with my heart. I was in shape, so everyone assumed that I was just hot.
“But I was in cardiac arrest.”
Papale was given CPR for 9 minutes by an Emergency Medical Technician, who was fortunately carrying his pager in a nearby building. There was no defibrillator on the premises. Then an ambulance arrived, and its EMT shocked him with the device.
Papale responded and was rushed to Mid-State Hospital in Meriden, where he again went into cardiac arrest.
Again, he was shocked, and again, he responded. He was then transported to Hartford Hospital, where he underwent an operation to implant a combined pacemaker and defibrillator.
Papale spent 14 days in the hospital. He still cannot remember passing out on the bleachers in front of his father, Mike, brother, John, best friend, Connor Meehan, and a slew of terrified young basketball players.
The first call for help was answered by Bob Heubner, who rushed to the scene and began CPR.
“They say it goes in 10-minute increments,” Papale said.
“For every 10 minutes, you have that less chance of survival.”
Although the CPR therapy was critical, Papale feels he wouldn’t have survived without the use of the defibrillator.
Papale suffers from a hereditary condition called hypertropic cardiomyopathy, which affects the heart muscle. It is the same malady that killed both Loyola Marymount basketball standout Hank Gathers and former Boston Celtic Reggie Lewis.
Papale said that in most cases the condition can be detected by a simple EKG test.
“It wouldn’t be difficult to tell in my condition,” Papale said. “My EKG is totally different from anyone else’s. Their beats go up, mine go down.”
Papale said he doesn’t talk about that day much, especially to his younger brother, who now plays basketball at Choate. John Papale has been tested for the condition and does not have it. Mike just wishes that John didn’t have to witness the scary incident.
“He was in the hallway of the Park & Rec department when a policeman came in and said he was there to report the death of a 17-year-old,” Papale said. “I wish he never had to go through that. No one died. It’s actually been easiest for me than on my family, because they had to see it.”
Papale said what he’s learned most at Quinnipiac is how to win. The Bobcats set a program record for victories last year and won their first Northeast Conference title.
“Winning is important at this level, and everyone on the coaching staff has won before,” Papale said. “(Head coach) Tom Moore has been a part of national championships at UConn. (Assistant) Scott Burrell has won an NBA championship.”
Papale detailed the titles that assistants Sean Doherty and Adam Eaton have won and the credentials of director of basketball operations Jonathan Iati.
“They’re all winners,” Papale said. “It’s not about drills, and everything is learning how to win.”
Moore said that Papale has been an important part of the club.
“He’s been a blessing because of his level of commitment and dedication and loyalty to our program — it’s off the charts,” Moore said.
“He’s a bright young guy and very loyal. He’s got qualities that you don’t find in a lot of young people 18 to 22. Anything I ask him to do, he does with enthusiasm. He’s made himself essential and invaluable. He’s been such a help to our program.”
Papale helps at practice and games, edits videos and sends out recruiting mailings, among a long list of other things.
Anything to help.
“I’ll do anything I can,” Papale said. “I want to win as much as anyone on this team, and I realized that there’s nothing else that I want to do than be around basketball.”
Moore knew that Papale was a talented player, but he didn’t know the drive that Papale has.
“I’m grateful for how much he’s given us and really excited about his future,” Moore said. “He’s very bright, and I think it will be in basketball. He’s got a ton of potential as a head coach.
“He comes from a great family, and in light of what nearly happened to him, they feel blessed for every day that they have with him. Any parent can relate to what they have, which amounts to a second chance.”
Papale realizes that he’s fortunate to be alive, but still regrets not being able to play anymore. The heart attack occurred as Papale was preparing for his final year of high school basketball.
“I went to every practice at Sheehan my senior year and sat on the bench in every game, and it got hard,” Papale said. “But I was able to take what happened and realize that I was lucky to even survive it.”
Papale and the seniors on the Quinnipiac team have begun a program to raise funds for defibrillators to distribute to area schools. The Wallingford Park & Recreation Dept. now has one, and Papale believes that every such building should be equipped with one.
“It saved my life,” he said.
And he’s hoping he can help save others.