‘Miracle’ reunites Duluth tennis coach, pupil

While the pair had developed a close instructor-pupil bond through the years, what happened Dec. 27 will tie them together forever.

Shortly into an early morning practice session on Court No. 2 at the DISC, the 79-year-old Laiti suffered cardiac arrest and his student needed to act to save his life.

The duo and DISC employee Nikoli Wiens were the only ones at the facility off Rice Lake Road.

Phil Laiti gives pointers as Nore Heinitz (right) and Ty Kruger practice at the Duluth Indoor Sports Center on Monday, March 29, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / [email protected])

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“We were about 25 minutes in and took a break,” Heinitz recalled. “We were talking and, all of a sudden, I heard something and looked and saw that he had fallen back off the bench. I thought first he had slipped and then I saw that he was not conscious. I ran inside and got Nikoli and he called 911.”

Wiens, who takes CPR classes every year in his role as Duluth East’s volleyball coach, picks up the story:

“They were the first ones in that morning so they were out on the courts beginning to train,” he said. “I was getting everything set up in the building when Nore came running in and said something was wrong with Phil. Right away I figured out it was a serious situation so I got on the phone with 911 and evaluated where he was at, and then did CPR until the paramedics got there.”

Despite his training, Wiens talked with the 911 operator to make sure he was doing everything correctly.

“I did CPR for about five minutes and I was getting pretty gassed,” Wiens said. “So I had Nore take over briefly so I could catch my breath and then I took back over again until the fire department was first on the scene.”

Nore Heinitz hits the ball during practice at the Duluth Indoor Sports Center on Monday, March 29, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Nore Heinitz hits the ball during practice at the Duluth Indoor Sports Center on Monday, March 29, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / [email protected])

Heinitz briefly returned inside the lounge area to call her mother, Kim.

“I called my mom and she said, ‘I know it’s scary but you have to go out there and see if he needs help.’ And he did,” Heinitz said. “I started CPR then and the 911 (operator) was telling me what to do and when to push down and to come up.”

Heinitz had last performed CPR years earlier on a mannequin at school.

“And that was like fourth grade,” she said. “I had no idea of what I was doing.”

Wiens appreciated the help.

“She was freaked out initially, but she did the right thing by getting me right away and then took over for me in the middle of (giving CPR),” he said. “She was remarkably calm for someone in that situation and that age.”

Laiti was born and raised in French River along the North Shore. He played basketball and baseball and ran track growing up.

He studied piano at the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University and later became a classical music instructor.

Laiti found similarities between teaching music and that of tennis, which he had enjoyed watching since the 1950s. When he became disenchanted with musical instruction, he moved back to the Duluth area in the early 1970s and started giving tennis lessons by the end of the decade.

“I enjoyed the mechanical part of learning how to have good technique, be it on the keyboard or anything else,” Laiti explained. “And you need that in tennis — it’s a technical game, expressed emotionally. There are similarities there.”

Tennis coach Phil Laiti talks about his heart attack. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Tennis coach Phil Laiti talks about his heart attack. (Steve Kuchera / [email protected])

Less than a decade ago, Laiti was looking for a new pupil and someone with the right temperament. He spied Heinitz at a clinic.

“I look for someone who wants to do something different and right away I noticed her,” Laiti remembered. “You look at their eyes first. The eyes will tell you what people are thinking and really want to do. That’s the thermometer for your soul, the eyes. And then you see if she’s somebody who doesn’t want to get off the court.”

Heinitz checked off all the boxes and Laiti became her coach on her ninth birthday, April 2, 2012, exactly nine years ago.

Heinitz, who attended Duluth Marshall through seventh grade before finishing her schooling online at home, blossomed on the court to become one of the state’s better players in her age group on the junior circuit.

“He’s the main reason I’ve gotten to the point I have today,” she said. “He’s developed my game and my mentality on and off the court.

“Sometimes we butt heads, but for the most part it’s been a really good partnership.”

Phil Laiti is flanked by tennis player Nore Heinitz and Duluth Indoor Sports Center DISC employee Nikoli Wiens at DISC on Monday, March 29, 2021. Heinitz and Wiens performed CPR on Laiti after he went into cardiac arrest on Dec. 27, 2020. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Phil Laiti is flanked by tennis player Nore Heinitz and Duluth Indoor Sports Center DISC employee Nikoli Wiens at DISC on Monday, March 29, 2021. Heinitz and Wiens performed CPR on Laiti after he went into cardiac arrest on Dec. 27, 2020. (Steve Kuchera / [email protected])

That’s why Heinitz struggled with watching Laiti lie lifeless on the courts they had spent so much time on honing her game.

Once the fire department arrived, and moments later as the paramedics applied defibrillators to Laiti’s heart, Heinitz sought refuge in the lounge.

“I couldn’t watch; I couldn’t take any more of it,” she said.

The emergency medical technician told Laiti that he shocked him three times, more than any other patient.

“I think he was ready to take the paddles and go home,” Laiti said, using self-deprecating humor to deflect the seriousness of the situation. “He said it was the longest one he’s ever done in his whole career. I was dead, I wasn’t coming back. But then they got (the heart) going a little bit.”

At that point, Wiens didn’t know if his efforts were in vain.

“When he left the building (on a stretcher), I wasn’t sure if that was the last time I was going to see him or not,” Wiens said. “A guy his age and that situation, you’re not sure. It was nice to see him walk back in a few weeks later.”

Laiti said doctors told him his heart rate was operating at about 20% that first night in the intensive care unit at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center, but that rate went up to 60% by the following morning.

Laiti doesn’t recall much during the 10 days he spent in the ICU. He spent another five days recovering in his own room.

He does remember receiving a visit from his family physician, Dr. Thomas Heinitz, Nore’s father. The doctor advised Laiti’s nurses that all the talking Laiti was doing to himself was not a sign of brain damage from a lack of oxygen, but that it meant Laiti was back to normal.

A healthy, fit septuagenarian, Laiti said he had no previous health problems, though he suspects his cholesterol was too high. He suffered no lasting damage to his heart and has worked to lower his cholesterol through a vegan diet and works out on rowing machines that show his heart is functioning normal again.

The worst part of the ordeal, Laiti says, was the five ribs that were broken and the punctured lung he suffered during CPR.

Now recovered, he’s been back at the DISC giving private lessons for the past few weeks.

“I’ll live another 30, 40 years. I just took a little break,” Laiti joked.

Heinitz quickly returned to the court and used tennis as a form of mental therapy from the incident. She plans to play the sport at the University of North Dakota next fall.

And she hopes Laiti will be able to watch her.

“We’re so grateful. For one, that he’s still alive and also that he’s able to still coach,” she said. “It’s such a miracle.”

This story was updated at 11:03 a.m. April 2 to correct the spelling of Phil Laiti’s name. It was orginally posted at 4:06 p.m. April 1. The News Tribune regrets the error.