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'If we hadn't had an AED, I probably wouldn't be here today:' Live Oak senior returns to the court after medical emergency

Posted at 10:29 PM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-03 23:29:08-05

WACO, Texas — When Leah Stephenson stepped onto the basketball court November 20, she had no idea her life was about to change.

With about three minutes left in a game against Frost, the Live Oak Classical senior had already registered a double-double, combining 16 points with 10 rebounds.

Nothing could slow her down... until her heart did.

Stephenson collapsed onto the court as the teams were lining up for a free throw attempt. Her heart was beating abnormally.

For Stephenson, just being back on a basketball court is nothing short of a miracle.

"Doctors, parents, myself, our assistant coaches, our trainer all rushed out to her, and she had basically stopped breathing," said Live Oak Basketball Coach Steve Howard. "Her heart had stopped, and she was basically like that for five to six minutes."

The gym fell silent. Her teammates turned away from the action on the bench and joined together for a moment of prayer.

"That moment was probably the scariest moment, just freezing and not being able to help," said teammate Renee Wallace.

If you ask Stephenson about that night, she will tell you she remembers nearly every play, foul and basket. But as she fell to the floor, things fell into a blur.

"I remember the feeling of being in the cart before they took me to the ambulance and feeling the face mask on my face and seeing the green around, but I didn't know what was going on," Stephenson said.

As doctors and emergency personnel tried to figure out what was happening, Leah's life saving device was hanging from the wall less than 200 feet away.

Every school in Texas is required to have at least one Automated External Defibrillator (AED) on campus at all times and have at least one person trained to use it at any large school gathering.

At Live Oak, that device sits in a corner of the gym.

Coach Howard says in decades of coaching, he has never seen anyone have to use an AED during a game. He always thought it was needed more for elderly fans in the stands than young, fit athletes on the court.

But on November 20, emergency medical personnel used the school's AED to shock Stephenson's heart twice. Doctors say she likely would not have it to the hospital that night if they had not.

"To understand how to use an AED, where it is in the building, or what circumstances you need it in is so important," Stephenson said. "If we hadn't had an AED, I probably wouldn't be here today."

Stephenson was admitted into a hospital, where doctors gave her a defibrillator to help manage her heart going forward.

"We were just hoping she was gonna survive and make it to the hospital. Basketball was the farthest thing from our mind," said Coach Howard.

Fast forward four months and you can find Stephenson back on the court. Tuesday night, she helped guide the Lady Falcons to a playoff win.

She is only supposed to be playing in small spurts throughout the game, but Stephenson says when she's on the court, she just wants to keep playing.

"I was really just praying that God would allow me to do the sport that I love with the people I love," she said.

Off the court, she is quickly becoming a major advocate for AED training.

In the months since her episode, more than two dozen parents, students and teachers at Live Oak have completed AED certification classes. Coaches have reached out to other school districts to make sure their equipment was up to date.

"I've had multiple coaches call me and tell me 'Hey, the minute we heard about this, we checked our AEDs, made sure they were in compliance, made sure the batteries were up.' It just really brought an awareness to the whole thing," Coach Howard said.

If you are interested in becoming AED certified, the American Red Cross and YMCA of Central Texas offer AED training classes either in-person or online.