Rod and guy in Heart of 29 shirt

SAN DIEGO – The last time paramedic Mark Bonney saw Rod Carew, the Baseball Hall of Famer was clinging to life. Not only was Carew having a heart attack, his blood pressure was too low for him to receive medication that might boost his chances of surviving. Bonney left the hospital fearing that Carew wouldn’t make it.

When they reunited Monday, Carew was full of life. He smiled, laughed and fought off tears as he thanked Bonney and his fellow first responders from the Corona Fire Department for their actions.

Rod and Mark Bonney“When I hugged him, I felt like I wanted to cry,” Carew said. “All I could think was, `He’s part of the group that saved my life.’ I might not be here without him.”

Carew and Bonney were together again as part of a celebration at Major League Baseball’s All-Star FanFest, an event held in conjunction with the sport’s annual midseason showcase, the All-Star Game. The ceremony included tributes to all of Carew’s caregivers and included a group of youth baseball players learning Hands-Only CPR from Dr. Brad Schwartz, medical director of American Medical Response in San Diego and a new member of the San Diego Division Board of the American Heart Association.

“This was really special,” Carew said. “To be able to go out there and tell people about taking care of their heart, that’s what it’s really all about.”

On Sept. 20, Carew was playing golf by himself in Corona, California, when he felt burning in his chest and noticed his hands were sweating. Fearing that he was having a heart attack, he returned to the clubhouse and asked staffers to call 911.

Bonney and his team arrived within minutes. They stabilized Carew, then took him to the hospital. It was there that Carew went into cardiac arrest. He was revived by CPR, then underwent a procedure to open his clogged coronary artery. He later was diagnosed with heart failure, which means his heart wasn’t efficiently pumping blood to the rest of his body. It was so bad that doctors implanted a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, essentially having a machine perform the work his damaged heart could no longer do.

As he began to recover, Carew reached out to the AHA to start a campaign to boost awareness and prevention of heart disease. The effort is called Heart of 29, named in honor of the jersey number he wore throughout his career with the Minnesota Twins and then-California Angels. Both teams, as well as the Los Angeles Dodgers, have held games this season honoring Carew and promoting the campaign. The Boston Red Sox are hosting another at Fenway Park on July 21, with more events coming in the following days at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

FanFest offered another opportunity for Carew to connect with his target audience — baseball fans.

It’s fitting that Carew was involved in this event considering he was an All-Star 18 times. Only Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Stan Musial and Cal Ripken made it more often.

Even more fitting is that this event is held in San Diego, which is where Carew received his LVAD and spent nearly two months recovering. He was treated at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. Dr. Ajay Srivastava, a heart failure specialist, also attended the ceremony involving Bonney and the CPR training, as did Jennifer Nowaczyk, a physician assistant and coordinator of the Scripps LVAD program.

Rod with Bonney and Scripps duo

Carew’s first event of the day began in The Clubhouse, a locker-room type venue. He arrived just as Hall of Famer Dave Winfield was wrapping up his event. The relationship between the two dates to the early 1970s, when Carew starred for the Twins and Winfield was a star at the University of Minnesota.

Winfield happened to be answering a question about mentors when he saw Carew. Winfield interrupted himself, leaving the stage to hug Carew.

“I love this man,” Winfield told the crowd. “He’s one of the best hitters of all-time and an even better person.”

Rod and Winfield

Carew’s 30-minute Q-and-A session focused mostly on baseball. The first question was about memories of his first All-Star Game.

“Shaky legs,” Carew said, chuckling.

He later held another Q-and-A at The Clubhouse alongside Tony Oliva, his longtime teammate and close friend. The duo then took pictures with fans in front of the World’s Largest Baseball. One of the first people in line was Brent Brommer of Minneapolis, who came wearing a Heart of 29 T-shirt. Brommer received it as part of a promotion from the Twins. He also took part in the Twin Cities Heart Walk, another event that featured Carew and Heart of 29.

Rod and Tony and wives

Rod and Rhonda Carew, along with Gordette and Tony Oliva.

From the giant baseball, Carew went to a miniature baseball field called “The Diamond” for the day’s emotional crescendo.

Carew opened with a brief speech. When he discussed his LVAD, he lifted his button-down shirt to show off the two batteries and controller that he wears at all times.

“My job right now is to spread the word,” Carew said. “People don’t understand how many lives we lose each day. And it doesn’t have to happen. So much of heart disease can be prevented. If we can get the word out, we’re going to save a lot of lives. That’s what Heart of 29 is meant to do.

Bonney received a plaque from Major League Baseball that read, in part, “Thank you for saving the life of Rod Carew and many others.” Carew then gave Bonney and his family tickets for the Home Run Derby, which was held a few hours later, and to the All-Star Game on Tuesday night. (Bonney was among four first responders on Carew’s calls, but the other three were unable to make this event.)

Rod watching kids learn CPR

The Hands-Only CPR training followed, with about a dozen 11- and 12-year-olds from the Rancho Penesquitos Little League All-Star team getting on their hands and knees to practice the life-saving skill. Carew and Bonney stood together watching. Oliva stood with them, too, until he got on his knees and gave compressions to a practice manikin.

Tony doing CPR

Oliva takes a turn trying Hands-Only CPR, with Dr. Brad Schwartz supervising.

Carew’s final stop was to the AHA booth. More CPR training was being held there, along with distribution of a variety of information related to Hands-Only CPR and, of course, Heart of 29.

Wherever Carew went, crowds gathered.

Both his sessions at The Clubhouse were standing-room only, and a long stream of fans waited in line to take pictures with him and Oliva. As Carew went from one location to another, fans waved and hollered lines like “We’re praying for you, Rod” and “Congrats on your recovery!” One man even gave Carew a gift from his native Panama. When another fan said Carew looked good, he responded, “I feel good!”

Carew’s treatment remains ongoing. In fact, a few hours before arriving at FanFest, he had blood drawn as part of his routine maintenance.

Although the LVAD enabled Carew to regain a somewhat normal life, he is hoping to receive a heart transplant. He has an appointment late this month to begin the process of getting on the transplant waiting list. If all goes well, he could have a new heart before the first anniversary of his heart attack.

Rod signing banner