A superstar spouse and help from a ‘guardian angel’ have Harlan back in the game

Dave Harlan (left) said the outpouring of love and support from the volleyball community following his heart attack made him feel “outstanding.”
Dave Harlan worked the Silver division of the Asics Challenge at Brother Rice. (Photo by Dave Ruggles)

Dave Harlan could feel a little discomfort in his left arm when he arrived at his Indian Head Park home after officiating a match between Plainfield Central and visiting Nazareth on August 27.

But he shook it off.

“My wife asked me, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Harlan said. “I said, ‘Nothing. I’m OK. I’m OK.’ She followed me as I was heading toward the bedroom to change my clothes and asked me again, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘I’m fine.’”

Seconds later, Harlan grabbed his chest and dropped to one knee.

The veteran IHSA volleyball official was suffering a heart attack.

***

David Harlan grew up in Glen Ellyn and graduated from Glenbard West High School. He attended College of DuPage and later the University of Illinois-Chicago before going into sheet metal work.

When not officiating high school, club or college volleyball matches, Harlan works as a sheet metal foreman for the Chicago Transit Authority, overseeing repairs to the company’s fleet of 1,864 buses.

He met his wife, Judy, when he was 16 years old and she was 15. They met through American Sokol, an organization that seeks to guide youngsters from early youth through young adulthood through physical fitness activities as well as cultural and social activities.

The couple has three children – Jason, 39, and twins Ryan and Shauna, 33. All three attended Lyons Township High School, where Shauna played volleyball before continuing her career at Aurora University.

Dave and Judy have no grandchildren, however.

“Hopefully, they’re working on that,” Harlan said.

***

Harlan became interested in officiating volleyball after playing club volleyball for nine years beginning at age 16. He finally decided to take the plunge into officiating 27 years ago, and has become one of Illinois’ most respected and well-liked referees.

“I love Dave Harlan,” said fellow official Kathy Diamond. “Dave and I started reffing together. He’s a great partner … professional, dedicated, first-class. He’s a great guy. I’m glad to see he’s back so quickly.”

“Dave is always very professional,” said Benet coach Brad Baker. “We know when he is our referee that we are going to get good, consistent calls.”

Harlan credits several people with helping his development as an official.

“I go back to so many great people … Peg Campana, Cindy Eggemeyer,” he said. “Peg (an IHSA official for 32 years) had to be my top mentor. I could just go on and on … Ed Vesely, Nancy Nester, Jackie Skryd, Anthony Skrocki, Janice McGeary.”

Harlan, who has worked the state finals, including the 2007 Class 4A championship game between Naperville Central and Mother McAuley, said his greatest memory as a volleyball official occurred two years later.

Harlan and Campana officiated the 2009 Class 3A sectional championship between Joliet Catholic and host Wheaton St. Francis. Anne Marie Hickey pounded out 19 kills as Joliet Catholic outdueled Kelsey Robinson and the Spartans, 20-25, 26-24, 25-22.

“There were so many people there that they finally closed the doors and wouldn’t let anyone else in,” he said. “That match has stayed in my mind because it was so intense. That was one of the greatest matches I ever did in my life.”

***

Judy, an ultrasound technician, recognized almost immediately that her husband was suffering a myocardial infarction.

“She said she’d call 9-1-1, and I said, ‘Don’t even do that. I can get into the car,’ and we drove to the hospital, which is about 5 minutes away,” Harlan said. “My wife called ahead, and they contacted the cardiologist on call, who left the hospital a few minutes before my wife called.

“I guess he turned around and headed back toward the hospital right away, because he came through the door almost as soon as we did.”

Harlan’s daughter and her husband, who were visiting at the time he suffered his attack, accompanied her parents to the hospital. The four of them even managed to enjoy a moment of levity among the chaos and uncertainty.

“They’ve already filled me full of morphine, and the doctor comes in and says, ‘All right now, if you do this, you could die. If we do this, you could die. And if we don’t do this, you could die,’ Harlan said. “I’m like, ‘O.K.’

“Now they have me sign a piece of paper when I’m loaded with morphine. They said my signature looked like John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence. My daughter and my wife were laughing. ‘We’ve never seen you seen you sign your name so perfectly.’”

Less than an hour after Harlan returned home from his match and suffering the heart attack, doctors had placed a stent in his right coronary artery.

“I woke up the next morning and they were all there … my wife and children,” Harlan said. “I  was just like, ‘What happened?’ I didn’t recall a lot of it because of the morphine they had given to me.  

“My wife and daughter said, ‘You had a heart attack.’ I said, ‘C’mon.’ Then I looked around and saw that I was in intensive care in a hospital. ‘Well, I guess you’re right. It must have happened.’”

Harlan also began to reflect on a fellow official who passed away suddenly last May.

“The next day when I woke up, I started thinking about my late buddy, Dave Perillo,” he said.

***

Two weeks after suffering his heart attack, Harlan was back at work and officiating again. His first match on Tuesday, September 10, featured Lincoln-Way East at Lyons. His partner was former Waubonsie Valley boys’ volleyball coach Al Lagger.

“The volleyball world is such a warm place,” Harlan said. “My wife called Jackie Skryd immediately after the attack and Jackie spread the word about what it happened. She called all the assigners and let them know I would not be able do any volleyball for a couple weeks.

“I had so many people asking how I was doing … officials, assigners and even coaches. It’s such a great feeling knowing that this volleyball world … it’s just an outstanding environment. Everybody is so tight and so caring. So many people sent prayers for me. It made me feel outstanding.”

Harlan suffers no ill-effects from his ordeal, although the blood thinner that has become part of his daily regimen to prevent future blockages does cause him to bruise more easily.

“I’ve taken a couple of bumps and bruises from the volleyball,” he said. “Last Saturday (at the Scholastic Cup tournament), I got whacked right in the head. But there’s no bruising … yet.”

***

Dave and Judy Harlan celebrated 40 years of marriage on Sunday, October 13.

“All I can tell you is that I am a very fortunate person,” Harlan said. “My wife was a superstar that night, and I’m also totally confident there was some kind of guardian angel watching over me.

“I am so fortunate and so thankful,” he added. “It was a scary, scary situation. I came out so fantastic. I’m such a fortunate person. I really am.”

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