Oakland Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden speaks during a news conference. (Tony Avelar / Associated…)
For cornerback D.J. Hayden, the ability to thrive in one-on-one situations sets him apart.
It was teamwork, though, that saved his life.
Hayden, drafted 12th overall by the Oakland Raiders last month, nearly died on the University of Houston practice field Nov. 6, when a seemingly routine collision resulted in an injury that left doctors and trainers in utter disbelief. He suffered a torn vein to the heart, an injury that most often occurs in motor-vehicle accidents or on the battlefield, and, his doctors say, has a mortality rate of 99%.
But for the urgent precision of medical personnel — coupled with some unbelievable good fortune — he almost certainly would not have survived.
"For me to almost lose this, and now to be back on this field…" Hayden said by phone recently from Raiders mini-camp. "I'm just blessed."
The injury happened when Hayden, 22, a team captain and All-Conference USA first team player, crashed into fellow defensive back Trevon Stewart as they were converging on a deep pass from opposite directions. Hayden took a foot to the chest during the collision and knelt on the ground, apparently with the wind knocked out of him.
"When I went over to him and he caught his breath again, he complained about his chest hurting," trainer Mike "Doc" O'Shea recalled. "I thought, 'Well, maybe it's a fractured rib.'"
Then came the first in a series of make-or-break decisions. Rather than having Hayden walk back to the locker room as he might normally have done, O'Shea called for a cart. The trainer cannot explain precisely why he made that choice. Maybe it was his nearly five decades of experience, but he doesn't rule out divine intervention.
"Something told me to stay with him in the locker room, not let him shower," O'Shea said. "And if those things wouldn't have happened, he wouldn't have made it."
No one knew at the time that Hayden had suffered a tear to two of the three layers of his inferior vena cava, a large vein that carries blood up from his lower body to the right atrium of his heart.
"Never before in the history of organized sports has this ever happened," said Dr. Walter Lowe, head team physician for Houston. "With that many tackles and hard hits, you couldn't count them — something in the millions or tens of millions. This injury has never been reported on a football field, or basketball court, or wrestling match. So it's very odd."
In the locker room, Hayden was internally bleeding to death. The way it looked to him, the lights were quickly dimming.
"[O'Shea] was asking me these questions, and I was getting real cold," Hayden said. "I'm looking around, and I'm getting real sleepy. My left eye goes pitch black. I can't see out of it … I'm praying, 'Lord, help me get out of this one.'"
Then, more good fortune. O'Shea called for an ambulance, and there happened to be one in the area heading to a non-emergency call. It arrived at the stadium within two minutes.
Instead of heading to the hospital where injured Houston players might typically go, O'Shea and the paramedics opted to rush Hayden to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, a Level 1 trauma hospital. There, was the proper equipment to quickly assess the injury — and doctors who routinely perform these types of life-saving surgeries.
"I thought it was some type of spleen or liver laceration," O'Shea said. "But once they got him into surgery, they found out it was the inferior vena cava."
Lowe said that 95% of those patients never even make it to the hospital, and even then the chances aren't good as the total mortality rate rises to 99%. The delicate job of repairing the vein is akin to stitching together wet tissue paper.
Something else helped saved Hayden. When he was injured, the sac around the heart was punctured. That allowed accumulating blood to drain into his abdomen. Had the sac not been perforated, the pooling blood would have suffocated his heart within minutes.
The team of trauma surgeons Ron Albarado and Phil Adams, and chief resident Laura Kreiner, performed the 2 1/2-hour operation on Hayden, who opened his eyes hours later to find himself in intensive care with a stapled incision that ran from his navel to the top of his chest.
"I didn't think it was that serious before I woke up," he said. "I woke up and saw it on the news. Then, I was looking at the scar and all these bandages and all these machines I'm hooked up to. I realized I was truly blessed.
"My mom, at first [she] didn't take it so well. But then some of my teammates came and saw me. My family and friends saw me. They took care of me real well."
Whereas some such survivors spend weeks in the hospital, Hayden was back home in six days. He was wobbly and weak, and eventually would drop to 167 pounds from his playing weight of 191, but he was alive.
"At first I could barely sit," he said. "I couldn't lift my shoulders. … I could barely walk. My back was hunched over. It took me forever to sit up straight."