GLENDALE, Ariz. — After Cardinals quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens felt two pops in his chest during a June 4 practice, everything happened so quickly that he didn’t have a chance to understand how serious his situation was before it was all over.
Now, less than two months after needing emergency surgery to repair an aortic dissection, Kitchens is back on the field with the Cardinals at training camp, not quite 100 percent but well enough to start living life as usual again.
“I’m just fortunate to be where I’m at and be able to do what I’m doing,” Kitchens said Saturday. “The best thing that could have happened to me was getting back on the field. Especially since that’s what I was doing when it happened. It’s kind of come full circle.”
During a morning practice in Tempe last month, Kitchens felt two pops in his chest. That, Kitchens says, made him acutely aware of what happened in the following 30-40 seconds. His vision began to blur, and his right leg started to go numb. The latter assured him this was much more than dehydration.
The quarterbacks around him quickly realized something was wrong and dispatched Cardinals head athletic trainer Tom Reed, who got Kitchens inside and called team doctor Wayne Kuhl. Before long, Kitchens was on his way to Chandler Regional Hospital, where a CT scan revealed a tear of the aorta, the large artery that carries blood through the heart and abdomen.
Kitchens was then rushed to the Arizona Heart Hospital, a 13-minute helicopter ride away. There, Dr. Andrew Goldstein, a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon, told Kitchens the mortality rate of the surgery he was about to perform was not good — between 70 and 80 percent, according to various medical sources.
“I didn’t know what it was until after the surgery, really,” Kitchens said. “When they told me first what it was, I didn’t know, and then everything sort of happened so quick that I didn’t have a chance to look online and look it up and see how serious it is.
“They gave me the chances and the numbers and all that, but at the end of the day, those are just numbers.”
Kitchens said the surgery took between eight and nine hours. It was a complete success, as evidenced by the fact that he’s already back to coaching, only slowing down his running a bit.
“It’s a miracle, it really is, that he’s here and doing so well,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s like nothing ever happened. I’m sure Ginger doesn’t feel that way — his wife.”
Kitchens said the outpouring of support from friends and family as well as players and coaches around the NFL has been overwhelming, giving him a greater understanding of how much he means to the people in his life. The experience itself, though, hasn’t changed his approach to life but has offered him new perspective.
“I try to live life to the fullest every day, so I would hate to say that I’m starting that now because I think I’ve always done that sort of,” Kitchens said. “Now, do you have a different perspective on what you appreciate more? Yes, but some of that happened because of the actions and reactions that people gave you.”
The timing of those actions and reactions is what amazes Kitchens most of his ordeal. Had his circumstances been a little different, he might not be here today. Had his quarterbacks and the Cardinals medical staff not recognized the severity of his situation, he might not have gotten the help he needed so fast.
“I was very fortunate in a lot of different ways,” Kitchens said. “The week before we were off, on sort of a vacation. It could have happened then, and I would have been in trouble. It could have happened two hours later and I would have been in trouble. It could have been a day earlier or a day later, but it had to be that time.”
For all the support he got from friends, family and colleagues, though, it was Dr. Goldstein who convinced Kitchens, in a conversation a couple weeks back, that he’d coach again.
“He said, ‘You know, Freddie, you’re fixed, now you’ve got to get on with your life,'” Kitchens recalled. “The worst thing that could have happened to me missed its opportunity because I was in the right place at the right time.”