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Texas teen survives cardiac arrest with quick-thinking rodeo attendees

Dugan Chandler’s earliest memory is of riding a horse. He started at age 5 and began competing in the rodeo not long after.

“I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t rodeo,” he said. “I felt like every weekend, that’s what we did.”

His parents used to compete, too — mother Karlissa was a barrel racer and father Chad was a roper. They always had horses.

Dugan, a resident of Victoria, always took the sport seriously. At 17, he has already won 150 belt buckles and 10 saddles.

“As I got older, I realized it was something that made me happy,” he said. “I just enjoy doing it.”

Usually, the Chandlers go to the rodeo together. But in October 2020, Dugan opted to go to a Bellville event with family friend Curt Noonan.

“It was the beginning of the season,” Dugan said. “I saw all my friends. Everything was normal.”

He recalls watching his friends ride, then setting up for his turn. He exited the chute, rode toward the calf and tied him up.

“All of that, I vividly remember,” he said.

The rest is jumbled. He can’t picture getting back on his horse, but he does remember riding out of the arena and talking to friends afterward.

“Then it just went black,” Dugan said. “I don’t remember anything else except for moments of being in the hospital.”

Something went wrong

Karlissa Chandler was home when she received a call around 8 p.m. that night. The voice at the other end of the line was calm yet urgent: “Something has happened. You need to come this way.”

“I said OK and just started driving on 59,” Karlissa recalled. She had no idea what happened to her son and said she first thought he had fallen ill or eaten something that made him sick.

Then, she got another call. Dugan would be placed on a Life Flight. She needed to head to Memorial Hermann in the Texas Medical Center.

When she heard Life Flight, she knew it was something more serious.

Dugan was on a ventilator, unconscious. The ER doctor suspected cardiac arrest.

“But I didn’t believe it,” she said, “because he doesn’t have any heart issues and we don’t have a family history.”

She needed information and called Noonan, asking to hear exactly what happened at the rodeo.

She learned her son roped the calf, then went outside of the arena and slumped over atop his horse Bugs. The buckskin quarter horse, which Dugan had ridden since age 9, did not move.

Cody Cerny, a firefighter with the Houston Fire Department who also had a child competing in the event, ran over and began CPR.

“He quickly saw that it wasn’t working,” Karlissa said.

Cerny knew that Dugan needed an automated external defibrillator (AED).

Luckily, an EMT in the crowd, Richard Fontenot, had one in his car and ran to get the device. Even though the model was old and discontinued, it still worked.

“He had to deliver two shocks,” Karlissa said. “Right away, Dugan regained his pulse.”

Christine Meliones, pediatric cardiology nurse practitioner with UT Physicians and UTHealth, was in the ER when Dugan was admitted to Memorial Hermann.

Meliones needed a reading from the AED to know for certain if Dugan had sudden cardiac arrest. Fontenot rushed the machine to the hospital. But because the device had been out of use for years, Meliones had to contact the manufacturer to get the information she needed.

Finally, she could make the diagnosis.

Setting up surgery

Karlissa was in shock.

“I have one child. This is my only child,” she remembers telling a nurse. “I cannot leave this hospital without my child.”

The nurse eased her concerns. People from the rodeo drove to the hospital where they gathered in the parking lot because they couldn’t come inside to visit due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“They just wanted to be there,” Karlissa said. “We had so many people praying.”

Although he wasn’t without oxygen for long, she worried Dugan would suffer lasting damage. “Typically, there’s some type of cognitive delay, or some have to relearn how to walk,” she said. “I’ve heard all kinds of stories.”

But the teenager woke up with only a bit of confusion and appeared fine otherwise. After being intubated, he was on a ventilator for about 24 hours.

When Dugan realized he had been unconscious, his first thought was of his favorite NFL team, the New Orleans Saints. “I watch them every Sunday,” he said. “I was scared I missed a game.”

He felt groggy. “I was confused about what had happened,” he recalled. “I had a lot of questions.”

Meliones said that after running several diagnostic tests, no cause was discovered for Dugan’s cardiac arrest.

About 2,000 people under the age of 25 die from sudden cardiac arrest in the U.S. each year, according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The pediatric cardiology nurse practitioner said sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death for young athletes. In Dugan’s case, there were no underlying causes. Still, other children can be screened to see if a risk exists, Meliones said.

Three days after being admitted, Dugan had an operation to place in him an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). The procedure was Oct. 19, 2020, at Children’s Memorial Hermann.

The ICD can sense irregular heartbeats and deliver lifesaving shocks. Karlissa described it as their “safety net” for the future.

The Chandlers were able to return home to Victoria after four days in the hospital. Afterward, Dugan needed about three months to heal from his surgery.

“Now everything is perfectly fine, and it’s been over a year,” Dugan said.

Back in the saddle

One of the first things Dugan did when he returned home was visit his horse.

“I was happy to see him,” he said. “It was definitely a comforting feeling.”

He returned to the rodeo four months after the incident — in February 2021 in Gonzales.

“That was probably my most emotional experience,” Dugan said of the event east of San Antonio. He hadn’t been around his friends in the arena in a while.

“And I ended up winning,” Dugan said. “That was awesome. I also had my best time yet.”

In a way, he explained, his experience pushed him to go harder.

“I never thought, ‘Why me?’ My initial response was more like, ‘How fast can I get back to normal life?’ And that helped me a lot,” Dugan said.

He said he’s grateful that people in the rodeo crowd were able to quickly save him and that he did not have any lasting problems from the sudden cardiac arrest.

“I’ve become almost more ambitious,” Dugan said. “I hold myself to a higher standard now. I feel like there shouldn’t be anything else that holds me back.”

And that’s part of the reason that he decided to apply to Duke University — at the urging of his Memorial Hermann medical team.

He had often considered becoming a doctor, but he was also interested in other subjects, such as economics.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but in the back of my mind, I thought I’d want to be a doctor because I like helping people,” Dugan said.

His experience at Memorial Hermann cemented the plan.

But his medical team told him, “We all went to Duke. You should apply.”

“I thought it was a long shot,” he said, but he applied.

In December, he received his acceptance letter.

“When I saw it, I was in disbelief,” Dugan said. “If this wouldn’t have ever happened, I wouldn’t have applied to Duke. I wouldn’t have a story, and I wouldn’t have this passion.”

“It feels like God’s plan,” his mother added.

Meliones, also a Duke alumna, was a main inspiration.

“I was so excited for him,” she said. “He has grown so much in the past year. This kid is brilliant. He took this opportunity to grow and spread awareness in the community. I know he’s going to do great things. It’s just a tremendous story.”

He has pushed his school to obtain AEDs on campus. And his mother has encouraged rodeos and other sports arenas, as well as school buses, to be equipped with AEDs.

Meliones is still surprised that the old model of AED worked for Dugan. “It just shows the importance of having AEDs available.”

Peyton is a Houston-based freelance writer.

Texas teen survives cardiac arrest with quick-thinking rodeo attendees
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