The Odyssey of Austin Crew
Spencer grad begins next chapter a year removed from life-altering event
Austin Crew began a new chapter in the book that is the Spencer High School graduate’s life last month. He moved into the dorms at his beloved Iowa State University to begin his first year of college, ready for a new journey — the next step in a life which completed the first chapter with one heck of a punctuation mark. And it was a chapter which would impact all of his family.
Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of an incident which resulted in Crew’s name becoming part of the household dialogue across the state of Iowa and turned “CrewStrong” into a battle cry of support among the often divided Iowa State and University of Iowa faithful.
Heading into his senior year of high school, in the summer of 2017 he was looking forward to his final year as a Spencer Tiger with an impressive to-do list complete with plenty of high aspirations and personal goals. Little did he know, there was an unexpected roadblock which would do its best to overcome his can-do spirit. A roadblock which would impact not only Crew and his senior year experience, but would result in some revelations for many members of his immediate family.
“I was told by a lot of people, ‘Your senior years is going to be a good time. Enjoy it all,’” Crew recalled. “I was hoping to do everything I had always done. One of my goals was to get to state in tennis. I was taking some harder classes for college credits. I was trying to balance the fun with hard work.”
“It was probably his hardest year of classes,” Crew’s mother, Andrea Crew, pointed out.
His senior year began as expected. Austin Crew was senior class president and president of the National Honor Society. He auditioned for and received a key role in the school’s fall musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.” At football games he was an active leader of the spirited Tiger student section.
Then on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017 — two weeks after Austin Crew was named Spencer’s homecoming king — his life was turned upside down. Spencer and Storm Lake met on the Tornadoes home field for a big football showdown. He was there as part of the Tiger faithful celebrating the big win.
“It was a normal day,” he said. “The only things I remember, school was normal, the game was exciting, we did the victory lap around the track. I remember being tired. It was hot, unusually hot. I opened the car door, we were going to get food — that’s all I remember.”
The Spencer senior would collapse in the parking lot near his vehicle. His friends reacted quickly according to Andrea Crew who said they called for help. According to Austin Crew’s mother, two Spencer men, Dale Kroll and Jason Holt, began providing CPR life-saving efforts. Storm Lake paramedics arrived and shocked him using an AED. He also received a dose of epinephrine. He was transported to the Buena Vista County Hospital, stabilized and life-flighted to Sanford Children's Hospital. From their he was flown to the University of Iowa for continued medical care.
“In another minute, he would have been driving,” Andrea Crew said, counting the blessings that he wasn’t on the road with two of his best friends, Sam Aalberts and Trey Sievers, when he lost consciousness.
Austin’s condition continued to fluctuate. He would show signs of improvement, then things would take a turn for the worse, before he finally began making sustainable positive steps.
“It was really amazing,” Andrea Crew said. “He was so sick. We didn’t think he was going to make it on Monday. We were so scared. He couldn’t breathe.
She continued, “When he woke up, he kept asking, ‘Where is Sam and Trey?’ He kept asking in intensive care until they came back to see him.”
After some ups-and-downs, Austin Crew began to show improvement. He also began receiving messages offering encouragement from around the world — from as far away as Vietnam — and from the likes of the Iowa State football and basketball teams, classmates and friends.
During his stay at the University of Iowa Hospital, he took a picture in his Cyclone jersey looking over the Kinnick Stadium field. He hung his jersey in the hospital room.
“My brother told me to look at Twitter,” Austin Crew remembered. “I saw football players from ISU and Monte Morris. I got a basketball and football from the ISU coaches.”
He received cards, not just from friends, family and well-wishers from the Spencer area, but as his story spread, he began receiving get well cards from across the country.
“I opened them and cried,” Andrea Crew said.
He also received an online video message from the band, The Chainsmokers, who sing his favorite song.
“On Thursday, he was pretty grumpy,” Andrea Crew said. “He was tired of being in the bed. He had surgery on Wednesday and was supposed to get out on Friday.”
A defibrillator, similar to a pacemaker, was placed in Austin Crew’s chest, which wirelessly transits data to Iowa City every night. If any irregularities in his heartbeat are recorded, he receives a substantial shock to correct the issue.
“It’s like getting kicked by a big horse,” Austin Crew explained.
“It’s a safety feature,” Andrea Crew added. “His cardio-myopathy — his heart stopped with it.
“Why does his heart stop when his heart isn’t that bad,” she asked rhetorically. “They don’t know. We don’t know why it stopped.”
Andrea Crew credited the medical care as well as the immense amount of prayers from family, friends and strangers.
“It became more than just about Austin,” Andrea Crew said. “It brought hope.”
“There were kids in there who had been in there for months who were worse off than me,” Austin Crew said.
“It was about giving hope to all those that struggle,” Andrea Crew said. “I saved every picture from Facebook. We saved all the cards and every banner. My intention is to make a book with everything in it. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it right away.”
Driven by his desire to be part of the fall musical his senior year, a part he had been preparing for prior to his medical issue, Austin Crew returned to school the following Monday. He was forced to miss the all-state vocal tryouts after having qualifyed the previous two years but his quick recovery allowed him to participate in most of his other senior activities.
He was able to perform in “Fiddler on the Roof,” as well as state and individual speech while also achieving his goal, playing in the state tennis tournament.
“When I first got to the University of Iowa Hospital, I wasn’t sure about tennis,” he said. “They thought doubles might be a possibility. But my heart responded well and I had a really good year of tennis. I feel really blessed by that.”
When he returned to the tennis court, it was initially challenging.
“At first it was different,” Austin Crew said. “I was doing breathing exercises and I was really conscious of it. But after a while things were back to normal.”
He would be selected to participate at all-state in large group speech where he was part of the “Bonnie and Clyde” musical theater performance which earned the Critics Choice Award.
In individual speech, he qualified both his musical theater solo and after dinner speaking performances for state. In his after dinner speech, he spoke about his medical incident from a few months earlier.
Andrea Crew said the doctors performed extensive genetic testing on Austin Crew while he was in the hospital, performing 90 different blood tests.
“Problem is, this is a newer diagnosis,” she explained. “They were looking at genes from other patients for similarities.”
The Crew children all underwent a cardiac MRI and electrocardiograms.
Andrea Crew, a physician’s assistant, said understanding all of the medical dialogue has created a bit of a personal challenge.
“I can follow it a little bit, but it’s hard you know. It’s a mixed blessing. Sometimes ignorance is bliss,” she said. Molly and Ryan had evidence of mild disease, same as Austin ... “We don’t know what’s going to happen. They told us to watch for symptoms, but the only symptom Austin had. ...”
Andrea Crew’s voice trailed back as she thought back to the first sign of his condition — the night he collapsed and almost died in the Storm Lake High School parking lot.
“You always say it’s uncertain,” she said. “I wish I had it. I don’t want my kids to have it. But watching your kids deal with it sucks.”
Molly Crew was discovered to have Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a little more rare type of supraventricular tachycardia
“This was causing Molly’s heart to race intermittently and placed her at higher risk for more dangerous rhythms,” Andrea Crew explained. “She will take aspirin for several weeks since they had to poke a small hole in her heart to get to the affected area. She will be monitored yearly for evidence of Austin’s cardiomyopathy, as will the other kids.”
Andrea Crew noted there’s a 50-50 chance any offspring of the children will have it.
“But they can do some cool things genetically, but that’s down the road,” she said.
Some evidence of a problem was discovered in Austin Crew’s father, Pete Crew, as well. After undergoing a cardiac MRI the results were eye-opening for the family.
“He has the same cardio-myopathy as Austin,” Andrea Crew said. “The question is what do you do with him. He’s now 47 years old and there are no signs of anything. We decided to wait.”
According to Andrea Crew, for Pete Crew, the risk of implanting a defibrillator out-weighs the risk of cardiac arrest at this point.
“He is coming home on a Holter monitor to look for arrhythmias, but our plan is to watch and wait for now,” she said. “We’ve made some changes financially and with the business. Life is never certain, but when you know. ...”
In May, the Crew family paid a surprise visit to the Buena Vista Medical Center’s quarterly BVMC Emergency Management Services Association Meeting in May to thank those responders for helping to save his life following the October 2017 football game.
The BVRMC Emergency Services crew was onsite at the football game and along with other off duty BVRMC employees and CPR-trained bystanders they started working on saving his life. He was revived by a defibrillator and taken to BVRMC’s emergency room before eventually being flown to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and then on to Iowa City.
During National EMS Week, the Crew family felt this was the right time to recognize some of the dedicated people that helped save his life.
“The doctors in Sioux Falls told us what a great job everyone did in Storm Lake to get Austin back and stable enough to get to a pediatric cardiologist. We didn’t know everyone that helped that night but we wanted to recognize who we could,” Andrea Crew said.
With the help of their friend that lives in Spencer and works at BVRMC, the family devised a plan to surprise the emergency responders.
Andrea Crew was not in Storm Lake that night, but Austin Crew’s friends had called her from a cellphone and she could hear the emergency responders performing CPR on her son.
She told the crowd, “It was the worst thing I ever heard, but in hindsight I was listening to you save his life. I want to say thank you and encourage you to keep doing what you are doing.”
Austin Crew shared the speech he wrote and performed at the All-State Speech Competition called “Broken Heart.”
“A broken heart is sometimes a gift,” he said in the speech.
The Crew family also had a fundraiser and presented a check for $2,000 to go toward BVRMC’s CPR education opportunities and supplies.
“I just want you all to know what an impact you make each day, you have a tough job,” Andrea Crew said. “You don’t always get to see the happy parts and that is why we are here.”
During the summer months, Austin would be recognized by the Conservation District of Iowa and the Clay County Soil & Water District with a $4,000 first-place state winner of the Iowa Scholarship. The money is awarded to students pursuing a college education in conservation and/or agriculture and who show leadership and scholastic achievement. Austin Crew’s application included an essay describing the future of sustainable agriculture that was forwarded on to the regional directors who chose him as the state winner.
Now at Iowa State, where he seeks a degree alongside his brother, Ryan Crew, he is currently an open option student with two major interests, engineering and business finance. The SHS graduate is looking forward to a great first year of college and the family is facing the future with optimism forged by grace.
“Your perspective changes,” Andrea Crew reminded. “You can have a plan but that isn’t the way life goes. It’s more fluid than that. If your life was perfect, you don’t really need to rely on other people and you don’t rely on God.”