After tragedy, family hopes to get Memphis golf courses up to par with defibrillators

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Is your golf course ready to save your life? We’ve found out some aren’t equipped with life-saving devices, and one local family wants to change that.

Robin Howell says her husband Billy Howell kissed her goodbye the morning of July 5 and left to meet his sons at Stonebridge golf course off Davies Plantation Road. It was the first time in years he had stepped onto a green.

“When we showed up, he was in great spirits,” said Billy’s stepson, Bubba Sandefer.

Besides a complaint about indigestion, Sandefer said nothing that morning raised a red flag — until the fifth hole.

“I turned around to walk, and when I did, he said, ‘Hold on boys.’ And by the time I turned around, he was going down,” Sandefer said.

Billy collapsed. He had gone into cardiac arrest, meaning his heart malfunctioned and stopped beating unexpectedly.

“The first thing I said was, ‘Call 911!’ Sandefer said. “I took CPR when I was little kid, and I started CPR.”

The 911 operator then asked a question.

“Do you have a defibrillator? I said, ‘Ma’am, we are in the middle of the golf course,'” said Sandefer.

Listen to the 911 call after Bill Howell’s collapse on the golf course

He sent his brother to club house to see if they had one.

“He got there, and they said they didn’t have one,” he said.

Paramedics eventually showed up, but it was too late. Billy didn’t make it. He was just 68 years old.

“This was a blink of an eye, and he was gone. He left out that morning and never came home again. That’s what is hard,” Robin Howell said.

Billy had heart problems for years.

“Heart disease is still the number one killer in this country. Both men and women,” said Dr. Claro Diaz, who was Billy’s cardiologist. “Once somebody arrests, you know, we are behind the 8-ball on the get go. We are fighting an uphill battle.”

Diaz said that’s why the 911 operator asked for an automated external defibrillator. It’s a portable device that talks to the user through step-by-step instructions and sends an electric shock to the heart to try and restore a normal rhythm.

“They’re very life saving, yeah,” said Diaz.

(submitted photo) Billy Howell (top right) collapsed and died at Stonebridge golf course. His family would like to see more courses equipped with life-saving defibrillators.

Stonebridge management didn’t agree to an interview, but told WREG on the phone they are considering getting a defibrillator but no decision has been made.

To be clear, there’s no law requiring a golf course have one. WREG found out other private and public courses have made the investment including City of Memphis courses.

Golf and Park Maintenance Administrator Mickey Barker said they are working to get an AED at all of their courses. He showed us the one at Links at Galloway and the picture on top of it.

In 2019, he said a golfer lost his pulse on the 7th green. Staff used the AED, and the man survived.

“It was a really good story,” Barker said. “He’s back to playing golf. He’s had a lot of rehab since then but is doing really well.”

The Red Cross reports the average response time for first responders is 8 to 12 minutes, but some golf courses are large. Depending where the emergency happened, it could take time for paramedics to navigate it.

“We have to think about this. For every minute the AED is not there and you are not doing CPR, the victim is losing ten percent chance of survival for every minute,” said JC Graves, who offers AED training at the local Red Cross.

The most recent data we found shows about one percent of cardiac arrests last year occured at a place of recreation like a golf course. That equates to about 3,500 cardiac arrests.

“I truly believe he passed before he hit the ground. I don’t think this would have helped him,” said Sandefer. “But what about the next person who’s out there? It could help.”

Billy’s family is now working on a plan to raise money to get more Mid-South golf courses defibrillators, which can cost around $1,500 to $2,500 plus training. They are still in the early stages of planning but are looking to hold a golf tournament to raise money and awareness.

“If something like this were to happen, at least you could use it to try to save a life,” Robin Howell said.

Billy was a grandfather. He was funny, kind and selfless. He donated what he could to organizations like St Jude.

“He was doing that for before we were together. Every picture that St. Jude ever sent him is over there in the desk drawer,” Robin Howell said.

The family is now relying on memories to give them strength as they work to prevent other families from having to say such sudden goodbyes.

If you’d like to help the family with their efforts, you can contact Sandefer at bubbasandefer@gmail.com

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