Having cheated death, Mike Utting’s face lights up as he speaks about his new lease on life.
The former All Whites goalkeeper, once considered one of the brightest young football talents in the country, suffered a heart attack in January and nearly died.
He survived thanks to the quick thinking of two autistic men he supported at the time – Max, 21, and Lex, 18, who he was hanging out with when he went into cardiac arrest. Lex kept Utting alive by applying chest compressions while his brother called emergency services.
Lex told Stuff that when Utting turned bright red and clutched his chest on their lounge room couch, “I was panicked but thought, ‘I’m at least going to try to help.’”
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Lex moved Utting to the floor of their Auckland home and administered compressions for 15 minutes before medical help arrived. He’d learnt CPR at an engineering course months prior.
He took instructions from the 111 operator as Max waited outside for the ambulance and fire service.
When they arrive, he said a responding firefighter commended them.
Their mother, Helen – who asked the family’s surname be withheld – said they “knew exactly what to do”.
“My husband and I are very proud of our neuro-diverse children and how they acted on this day.”
The two young men were key contributors to saving Utting’s life, St John paramedic Geoff Hunt, who responded on the day, said.
“The boys did an excellent job recognising the patient’s collapse and making the decision to call 111 straight away.”
Every minute that goes by without CPR or defibrillation decreases the chance of surviving a cardiac arrest by 10 to 15%, St John deputy chief executive of clinical services Dr Damian Tomic said.
Lex and Max’s actions showed the importance of acting quickly.
“Survival rates can more than double with community help when someone is in cardiac arrest…If you don’t already know how to do CPR, please sign up for one of the many free courses that are available in the community today.”
Five weeks after the attack, Utting woke from a coma in Auckland Hospital, tubes hanging from his nose and mouth, without a clue how he’d got there.
“I thought, ‘where the f… am I?’ Honestly, it was like they turned the power off and turned it back on five weeks later. It was scary.”
His business Mike’s Mates (how he met Lex and Max) has been his “medicine”. He’s worked as a support person since 2017 for people with Down’s Syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy, which he describes as his “calling”.
Utting loves life more than he ever did playing football, and has just returned to work following a lengthy recovery. He didn’t realise how much he loved it until it was almost taken away.
“I’ve missed it so much. I’m actually glad I’ve had this experience as it’s forced change in my life and given me much needed clarity to why I’m still alive… to help others.”
Paramedics broke 24 of his ribs administering CPR.
Brain damage was possible, but Utting emerged “100%” himself.
Sitting at a healthy 91kg in his playing days, he soared to 152kg right before his heart gave up.
His body gave in after years of food, alcohol and cannabis misuse following his dramatic axing from the national team due to disciplinary issues in 2003. Alcohol was the problem then too.
He’s shed 30kg since his “wake-up call”.
“Sometimes you get stuck in a rut. Even though I’d never wish it on anyone, I appreciate what happened to me, and it’s given me clarity. I was very self centred in football, now I want to see others prosper.
“I’m very lucky to still be here. People can change.”
From the outset, life has not been straightforward for the shot stopper. Utting broke his neck in a car accident in 1995 and still managed to recover to play international football, despite being told he may never walk again.
After retiring, he worked in real estate for nine years, before deciding there had to be more to life.
As a teenager playing in the national league for Wellington’s Miramar Rangers, Utting ended up getting trials in the UK, which fell through because of stricter requirements around work permits at the time.
“I think I’m probably the biggest underachiever in New Zealand football…If I could do it again, I’d focus on training and being an athlete. I went out drinking a lot as a teenager. I never had a mentor.”
Utting was inducted into Wellington’s football hall of fame in 2017.
His career saw him play against European champions France in Paris and South American champions Colombia in Lyon in 2003. The game against France was the last he’d play in a New Zealand jersey.
He now works directly with families in his care capacity and hopes to add staff to Mike’s Mates and develop it further. He takes clients to the library, the arcade, out to lunch, to the beach, and out to chat. He’s their friend.
“I believe what goes around, comes around. If you’re a good person, things will happen for you.”