SAN DIEGO — Cem Er remembers racing toward a high-bouncing soccer ball, flying through the air and heading the ball into the net. The next thing he remembers is lying in an ambulance pleading for water and thinking he was dying.
A second after Er, a 20-year-old sophomore at United States International University, headed the ball, he collided with Cal State Los Angeles goalkeeper David Jacques.
Last Wednesday, Cem Er (pronounced Jim Air) suffered a rare--and frightening--injury during an afternoon soccer match at USIU.
Jacques' knee rammed into Er's sternum. The impact caused a small tear in Er's heart, something his doctors said had never happened before from a blunt injury in athletics.
Later that night, Er, from Istanbul, Turkey, underwent open-heart surgery at Sharp Memorial Hospital to repair a hole in one of the chambers of the heart.
"I thought I was dying, I couldn't get my breath," Er said.
During the ambulance ride, he was struggling with paramedics, even spitting on them, as he pleaded for water. "I've never felt like that before, I didn't think I would live again."
But by Saturday, Er was walking through the halls of the hospital and doing some light exercises. He said most of the pain from the surgery has subsided, but he's still weak.
Sunday, he watched football games on television.
"I can't do sports right now, that's what's the worst," he said. "I was watching television and they were playing American football. They were running, and I said 'Aw, shoot, I wish I could run.' But I believe I will be able to go back (to playing soccer) soon.
"It's really hard to explain, because I've never been like (this) in my life. I can't get up easily, it's hard to walk and I can't run. I mean, actually, I can't do whatever I want. It's really hard for me, you know. I feel like I'm in a prison."
Er said his spirit has not been broken because of the injury. He is confident that he will return to soccer without any fears of a repeat collision. Cardiac surgeon Robert Reichman, who repaired the tear, said Er will have to take it slow for six to eight weeks, which is the normal healing time for the breastbone after open-heart surgery. Reichman was uncertain when Er would be able to play but said Er will be sidelined from competitive sports for six months to a year and that the scar tissue surrounding his heart will reduce the risk of a similar injury.
Er seems to be handling the pain and frustration of his confinement well.
"If I hadn't scored and had the surgery, then I would have been mad," he said.
The goal, which put USIU ahead, 3-1, came with five minutes remaining in the second overtime period.
As the ball rolled into the net, most of Er's teammates began celebrating. But midfielder Andy Walker, less than 20 yards from the collision, immediately knew Er was hurt.
"I just screamed right away for the trainers to come over," Walker said. "I knew he was in trouble, but I didn't know what to do. . . . After the trainers got to him I walked away, I was shaking."
Student trainers Linda Rix and Brian Oliver, who administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation, are credited by doctors for saving Er's life.
"(Er) kept saying 'I can't breath,' " Oliver said. "He could breath, but he was breathing in very deep breaths."
Rix said she examined Er's pupils and saw that he had gone into shock. She then ran to call paramedics.
Seconds later, Er passed out. Oliver determined that Er had no pulse and was not breathing. He began CPR and Er was soon breathing again.
"I was on the sidelines and we didn't know how serious it was until they gave him mouth-to-mouth," USIU defenseman Jim Desjardin said. "Then, the whole attitude changed; nobody wanted to play anymore. Everyone was stunned and scared to see a teammate down like that."
Said Walker: "All of (Er's) impact was on the ball, unlike the goalkeeper who knew to close up. Cem was just a bit too brave and that's not such a bad thing."
Er and Jacques were sprinting toward the ball from different directions, but Jacques, the larger of the two at 6-feet 1-inch and 190 pounds, saw Er and protected himself. Er (5-9, 155) saw only the ball.
The game was stopped, and USIU was credited with a 3-1 victory.
"After it (the collision) initially happened, I didn't think much of it," Jacques said. "I figured he'd get up after a couple of minutes, brush himself off and keep playing.
"But after I found out how serious it was, I was really shocked and upset."
Jacques, who was not injured in the collision, said the incident initially made him think seriously about his future in soccer.
"I thought I could do two things: Either I could let this upset me, and dwell on it, or I could keep playing with the same intensity I always had. If I had to do it again, I wouldn't want the same outcome but I would go as hard as I did and he probably would have gone as hard as he did and scored.