Since the day he mysteriously collapsed during a workout three weeks ago, Roman Ruiz, a sophomore track and field athlete at Utah State, has been confined to a hospital bed struggling to climb back to consciousness and return to life.

If not for a flat tire and a quick-thinking passerby, he probably would not be here at all.

Doctors told Ruiz’s parents that their son had an anoxic (depletion of oxygen) brain injury caused by cardiac arrest, although they don’t know what triggered the event. He was technically dead for 30 to 35 minutes. It took that long to resuscitate him — after a lengthy CPR procedure, three defibrillation attempts and a shot of epinephrine. The danger of oxygen deprivation of course is brain damage.

Ruiz was taken to Logan Regional Hospital then life-flighted to McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden. He was put in a medically induced coma for several days. He spent nine days in ICU.

“It’s been tough to watch,” says Ruiz’s father, Javier.

Roman is in obvious pain. He has been so restless and uncomfortable that he has developed scrapes and scabs on his knees, hips, shoulders, nose and face from constantly rolling around in his bed. A nursing tech has been assigned to watch him around the clock.

“He looks like he’s been in an MMA fight,” says his father.

Roman doesn’t talk, but he can respond with a word or two occasionally. The family was excited when he exchanged a high-five with his nurse. When a nurse observed him thrashing restlessly with his arms, she teasingly asked him if he wanted to arm wrestle. He smiled and obliged. He also has said “dad” and “thanks.” Progress is measured in small steps.

“He is in a minimally conscious state,” says Javier. “It’s part of the brain injury process.” 

Ruiz has competed in athletics since he was a young boy and never gave any indication there were underlying health issues. In high school competition in his native Pasco, Washington, he excelled in a wide range of track and field events, throwing the shot put 52 feet, pole vaulting 15 feet, 9 inches and covering the high hurdles in 14.38. This made him a natural for the collegiate multi-events — the seven-event heptathlon indoors, the 10-event decathlon outdoors.

After serving a church mission in Rome, Italy, he reported to USU for his freshman season and placed third in the heptathlon in the 2019 indoor conference championships and seventh in the decathlon in the 2019 outdoor conference championships.

John Bailey, a retired physician, discovered USU track athlete Roman Ruiz face down on the track on March 7, 2020, unresponsive. Bailey called 911 and started CPR until paramedics arrived. | Courtesy John Bailey

On March 7, he showed up at USU’s Ralph Maughan Stadium. The track team was on spring break, but Ruiz was at the track that morning to get in a workout. As Ruiz warmed up, another man showed up at the track, 76-year-old John Bailey. As fate would have it, Bailey is a retired physician — he was director of Bear River Health for more than 30 years. He retired when he was diagnosed with a blood cancer called multiple myeloma.

Bailey had planned to take his first bike ride of the year because of the good weather, but as he pumped up the tires the stem on the back tire broke. He took the bike to a shop to have it repaired but was told he would have to wait a couple of hours. He left the bike at the shop and on the drive home decided on a whim to get his exercise at the track instead. It was the first time he had visited the track this year.

As he walked across the Utah State football practice field he saw Ruiz warming up on the side of the track. They were the only people there. “Nice morning, isn’t it?” Ruiz said to him. Bailey replied, “Yes, it is,” and, after leaving personal items in the bleachers, he began walking around the track. As he reached the backstretch he looked back across the track and saw that Ruiz was lying down, but figured he was resting.

He continued walking — at a pace of four minutes per lap — and as he drew closer to Ruiz he became alarmed. Ruiz was face down and was not moving. Something’s wrong, he thought to himself. He ran to him. Ruiz was not breathing. Blood was coming out of one nostril and foamy material was in his mouth. Bailey shook him and shouted, trying to wake him. There was no response. He ran back to the bleachers to get his cell phone and as soon as he returned to Ruiz’s side he called 911 and gave directions where to find him.

Bailey rolled Ruiz onto his back and began chest compressions while hearing sirens in the distance. He continued the CPR for several minutes and began to tire. “I knew I had to do it very vigorously,” he said. “I thought the most crucial thing was that he receive vigorous chest compressions. I was hoping he had enough oxygenated blood in his system to reach his brain.” Bailey stopped briefly a couple of times to reassess the patient’s status; Ruiz still was not breathing.

A man arrived in a pickup track — Bailey is still not certain who he was — and took over the compressions, asking Bailey to go to his truck to retrieve a mask used for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. By the time he returned, several emergency personnel had driven onto the track and were giving CPR and administering drugs and eventually defibrillation until Ruiz finally responded.

The prognosis for Ruiz is uncertain. “So far the doctors don’t know what caused it,” says Javier. “They’ve done some genetic testing, but it takes months to get the results. I’m not aware of anything like this in our family on either side.”

Meanwhile, not much can be done to relieve Roman’s obvious discomfort and restlessness. According to Javier, his son can’t be sedated because doctors need him to be as coherent and responsive as possible to determine his needs and to assess his mental status.

His parents believe prayer has carried him this far — and Bailey. Ruiz’s parents called Bailey to thank him. Ruiz’s mother Verna says it was a miracle that Bailey was there, especially on a Saturday during spring break when the campus is empty. “John Bailey is a life saver and we are eternally grateful for him,” she says. “Roman is meant to be alive and continue his goodness to everyone because John was there.”

Ruiz’s parents were not aware that Bailey is a retired physician until they learned of it three weeks after their son’s collapse.

“Oh, wow, we didn’t know that,” Javier wrote in a text message,

“It does give you pause. I have reflected on it. I had no intention to go to the track that day. I had not been there this year because of the snow. And we (he and Ruiz) were the only people there.” — John Bailey

“It does give you pause,” says Bailey. “I have reflected on it. I had no intention to go to the track that day. I had not been there this year because of the snow. And we (he and Ruiz) were the only people there.”

Teammate Sam Nelson started a GoFundMe page for Ruiz to help meet expenses. The Ruiz’s family insurance doesn’t cover all of the considerable costs of their son’s care and they have been informed that the school’s insurance for its athletes does not apply in this case because he was not participating in an official school workout. That’s a debatable position to take. Coaches in all sports routinely prescribe workouts for athletes to do on their own when their teams can’t meet — including during spring break — even though they are “voluntary.” This could be fodder for lawyers.

Meanwhile, only time will tell how Ruiz recovers from this event. Aspen Drecksel, Roman’s teammate and close friend, has visited with him several times via FaceTime in what is understandably a one-sided conversation. The first time they talked he managed to say “what?” The last time he talked he mouthed the word “Bye.” 

“I can see that he’s in a lot of pain,” says Drecksel. “And he’s lost a lot of weight. It’s hard to see him like that. He’s seriously the best guy. He always finds ways to serve other people and make them smile.”

Meanwhile, family and friends continue their long wait to see what lies ahead for Roman Ruiz.