Memphis Zabawa loves playing soccer. Yet because he has asthma, all the running can be especially taxing.
So, last fall, the seventh grader joined his school's cross-country team. His first race went fine. Midway through the second race, all was going well, too.
His dad, Justin – a high school teacher and soccer coach – was watching in the shade of a city park in Omaha, Nebraska, along with Memphis' younger brother, Cruz.
The first couple times Memphis ran past them, he was with a pack of runners. The third time around, he was behind them.
The next time, Memphis wasn't with the group or behind them.
As Justin and Cruz started walking up a path along the course to find Memphis, the team's coach sprinted in that direction. When Justin saw the coach, he knew something was wrong.
Memphis was on the ground. His eyes were open, his lips turning blue.
His inhaler was on the ground next to him. But that wasn't the problem.
His heart had stopped. He was in cardiac arrest.
By the time Justin arrived, two spectators – a teacher and a parent of a fellow runner who happened to be a nurse – were giving Memphis CPR. Justin was able to keep Cruz from seeing things play out.
The ambulance arrived and paramedics performed CPR and used an automated external defibrillator to shock his heart and regain a rhythm.
At the hospital, doctors confirmed that a severe asthma attack had caused Memphis to go into cardiac arrest. Because he was resuscitated quickly, doctors felt confident Memphis wouldn't have any physical or mental deficits.
Still, his parents worried. They felt better the next day while watching a University of Nebraska game. Hearing the song traditionally played when the Cornhuskers run onto the field, a groggy Memphis pumped his fist to the beat.
Memphis was discharged the next day with orders to follow up with his pulmonologist.
Using social media, his mom, Erin, found the people who helped her son survive. They gathered for an evening so that the Zabawa family could thank them, as well as piece together the events.
"They all recounted their experiences saving him," Erin said. "It was all so beautifully orchestrated."
The rescuers also shared how they had been impacted, especially during the time between the event and learning he was OK.
Two weeks after his cardiac arrest, Memphis' doctors cleared him to resume all activities. A week later, he joined his teammates for the final race of the season – back at the same city park where he'd collapsed on the final lap.
"He kept saying that he had to finish the race," Justin said.
Justin understood how much was at stake. As a lifelong asthma patient himself, he'd been hospitalized three times in his youth.
"From my own experiences, I didn't want Memphis to think that he has to live in fear," Justin said.
On race day, Cruz insisted on shadowing his older brother, staying in the background and returning to his parents with updates.
On the last lap, Justin returned to the hill where Memphis had collapsed.
"I wanted to see him coming around that loop and going down that hill," he said. "I was proud of him for wanting to do it."
Memphis didn't run to win, but he did finish.
The next day, Memphis played soccer – he's the team captain. He didn't start, but every time he entered the pitch, parents and kids applauded wildly.
Memphis doesn't remember much of the day he collapsed other than getting to the race and the first couple laps. But he thinks it's important for him and his family to keep talking about what happened.
"My story can save another person's life," said Memphis, who is a 2024 American Heart Association National Heart Walk Ambassador.
Erin and Justin have been spreading the word about learning CPR, and many of their friends and family have now been trained.
"This is what my life's work is going to be now," Erin said. "It's not just about learning CPR, but also about responding immediately. Don't wait for someone else to do it. It might be too late."
Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.