Ever the good son, Craig Cunningham gently placed his hand on his mother’s shaking shoulders and offered her a blanket.
In a news conference at Banner-University Medical Center Kiewit Auditorium on Wednesday, the Tucson Roadrunners’ captain offered a thank you to the medical staff who saved his life. Heather Cunningham fought back tears.
Cunningham, making his first public appearance since collapsing on the Tucson Arena ice before a Nov. 19 game against the Manitoba Moose, delivered a prepared statement and answered questions along with his doctors, Dr. Zain Khalpey and Dr. Reza Movahed, and Roadrunners general manager Doug Soetaert.
“In every sense of the word it’s a privilege to be here, because he’s here,” Khalpey said.
Cunningham, 26, required more than 85 minutes of relentless CPR after going into cardiac arrest on the ice. He was taken by ambulance to nearby Carondelet St. Mary’s Hospital, where innovative emergency medical procedures were completed by a team comprised of both St. Mary’s and Banner-UMC doctors.
“I don’t think I will ever find the words to express how grateful I really am,” Heather Cunningham said. “Craig would not be with us here today if these people had not gone the extra mile. The only reason he survived the original incident was his refusal to give up in this situation.”
That never-say-die attitude will be critical as he moves to a local rehabilitation center to continue his recovery, though a return to professional hockey is not likely.
Cunningham knows the road ahead is long, but he is eager to regain independence and mobility.
“Some days are good, some days are bad,” Cunningham said. “It’s more for me right now, kind of mental. I’ve been here so long, I look at the roof every day, and it’s the same roof. Nurses have been good taking me outside, and it’s made a huge difference. But it’s been a pretty big grind being in the same spot the whole time.”
Easing the pain and monotony has been the constant presence of both his Roadrunners teammates and friends from inside and out of the hockey world.
Soetaert offered his thanks to, he said, “everybody involved in the incident.”
“We’re in the hockey industry and it’s about teamwork and commitment and working hard to achieve a goal and I can tell you, being a little bit on the inside here from Day 1, I’ve never seen anything like this in my life with regards to the teamwork,” he said.
On Tuesday night, Soetaert stressed that the Roadrunners were on the mend as well, as the trauma of watching a fallen teammate was resounding.
“As Cunny gets better, our team gets better,” Soetaert said. “That’s the God’s honest truth. He was in critical condition, and the guys were in critical condition. Everyone was. But as he’s gotten better, the mood has gotten better — he’s still there, but he’s alive and trending in the right direction. And everyone is starting to heal with him.”
Khalpey, who performed the two emergency procedures using an artificial heart and lung machine called an ECMO, summed up Cunningham’s resilience.
“One thing that epitomizes everything is this: When I first spoke to him, I said, ‘You’re going to have a tough time with this,’” Khalpey said. “And he said, ‘Bring it on.’”