At the start of a regularly scheduled Durango Roller Girls’ practice in late May, dozens of women were racing round the Chapman Hill Ice Rink, single file, on roller skates.
One woman fell down, her body splashing onto the rink.
At first, no one thought anything of it: When you’re a Durango Roller Girl, tumbles happen.
But then the woman, “Machete,” didn’t get up.
“She just collapsed,” said Kate “Crossbones” Jones, league president. “It was 10 minutes into practice. To everybody, it just looked like she fainted. But then she actually started having a seizure.”
In fact, “Machete,” whose real name is Abbey Smith, was dying on the rink floor.
A sudden and major heart attack convulsed Smith’s young body, stopping her heart. With every passing second, her chances of survival faded from the statistically unenviable to stark and flickering.
She was just 31 years old.
The realization – instant, grim and terrifying – that Smith was undergoing a medical catastrophe struck all the derby girls at once.
In that fleeting moment, four intimidating players – Angela “EicheRumba” Eicher, Vanessa “Bad Czech Bo-hotty” Bohaty, Erica Foss and Alison “Gigi Homewrecker” Noyes – descended on Smith.
As luck would have it, within the violent, spandex-sporting sisterhood of the Durango Roller Girls, head-splitting hangovers, aggressive tattoos, horrible bruising and profane outbursts are as common as advanced degrees: Each of the four players was a nurse.
Immediately, they started administering CPR.
Another player called Rhett Smith, Abbey Smith’s husband; someone else called 911; others went outside to await the ambulance; the rest encircled Smith, staring on as their teammates tried to save her life.
“We were relying on our nurse teammates because we couldn’t do what they could do,” said Kalisha “Kill Eatcha” Crossland. “All those emergency situations seem so much longer than they are. But for eight or maybe 12 minutes – it felt like hours – we just watched them do compressions, thinking, ‘Machete has an 18-month-old baby, a 4-year-old son. Holy ... she’s going to die.’”
Grace and fear
The four nurses kept Smith alive until emergency medics arrived.
The entire team chased the ambulance to Mercy Regional Medical Center.
When the players got to the emergency room, the Mercy employees who answered the doorbell had no idea whom they were frantically asking about.
“We forgot about her real name, Abbey Smith. I’ve known Machete for five years,” Jones said.
As doctors furiously worked on Smith, her teammates crowded into Mercy’s family waiting room, where the adult cartoon “Family Guy” played on TV. Somehow, the episode featured roller derby.
“It was serendipitous. We couldn’t believe it,” said Brooke “Tuberookulosis” Frazer.
When news about Smith’s condition finally came, everyone fell silent. Down the hallway, Rhett, Smith’s husband, processed the information while looking after their two children.
Doctors had placed her in a medically induced coma. She might not survive, and if she did, she could emerge in a persistent vegetative state.
The players, who stayed at Mercy till after midnight, didn’t yet know it, but Durango Roller Girl Celeste “Celeste” Hanson-Weller was one of the nurses caring for Smith. She couldn’t come to practice because it conflicted with her ER shift.
Smith spent the next four days in a coma. When she woke up, with a defibrillator in her heart, she didn’t remember anything.
Doctors told her they thought she had Long QT syndrome, a rare condition that causes the heart to electrically malfunction.
“In my case, I think it’s genetics,” said Smith, who was interviewed Thursday by phone at home where she’s still recovering.
She was hospitalized for more than two weeks before she was released.
“I’m on a few medications. I finally got to stop doing the injections, but I’m still doing weekly blood tests and go to the cardiologist’s every month. It’s better than being in the hospital every day, and I’m very grateful for that,” she said
Eicher, one of the derby nurses who saved Smith’s life, said given the nature of her ailment, it was lucky she had the heart attack at practice, rather than it happening “at home, surrounded by her munchkins,” who would not have been able to help her.
Smith said, “In roller derby, there are all these bumper stickers saying, ‘Roller Derby Saved My Soul’ or ‘Roller Derby Saved My Life.’ In my case, it’s literally true.”
Smith, a homemaker with a sweet and intelligent demeanor, started playing roller derby four years ago. She said when she tells people she’s involved in the violent, high-speed sport, “everybody is totally shocked.”
“I’m not a very physical person, but it was the aggressiveness of the sport that attracted me. But now, what’s amazing is that it really has become one big family,” she said.
Whether she’ll be able to go return to roller derby is unclear. Strenuous exercise might exacerbate her heart condition, and her leg muscles atrophied during the weeks she languished in hospital beds.
“The plan is I’ll be on skates in six months, and that I’ll be bouting again in a year. My inspiration is a skater in New York – ‘Sherry Pie’ – who skates, and she got a defibrillator when she was 6.”
In the meantime, the Durango Roller Girls are throwing Smith a “picnic style” scrimmage at Chapman Hill Rink on July 12 to help pay for her medical bills.
Frazer, using colorful, if perhaps unprintable, language, said she keeps thinking about the courage and skill of the nurses who knew what to do when Smith hit the floor.
“All the time, we get bruises, broken bones, broken ankles, torn ACLs – I don’t want to tell a newspaper all the injuries because I’m head of recruitment. But this was nothing like that. Roller derby really did save Machete’s life.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the nature of the fundraiser the Durango Roller Girls are having for teammate Abbey Smith.