CLEVELAND — From regime changes to an unprecedented midseason coaching staff upheaval in 2018, future Cleveland Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens has seen plenty of challenges over his 20 years of coaching experience, including 13 in the National Football League.
But none of those challenges proved more critical than the personal one Kitchens faced on a Tuesday in June of 2013, when he suffered chest pain at an Arizona Cardinals practice during the organized team activities portion of the offseason program.
“I walked out onto the field,” Kitchens recalled in a feature produced by NFL Films in December of 2017. “As I was jogging over, I stopped and turned around. I turned around and realized I heard something pop in my chest. Suddenly, my vision started going white.”
Hearing those symptoms from Kitchens, the Cardinals quarterbacks, including Carson Palmer and current Browns backup Drew Stanton, got the attention of the training staff and had them evaluate their position coach.
“He made the comment like, ‘Man, does anybody else every get dizzy,’” Palmer recalled. “I forget what his exact words were, but maybe he couldn’t see out of one eye or something. I kind of remember looking over at him and I said something to the team trainer, ‘Hey, go check Freddie out.’”
After taking Kitchens’ vitals, which were at uncomfortably low levels, Cardinals head trainer Tom Reed convinced the assistant coach to let a student trainer drive him to Dignity Health and Chandler Regional Medical Center.
It was there that Kitchens underwent a battery of tests, including a CT scan, which showed something in need of urgent medical attention.
“The X-Ray technician looked at me and said, ‘Buddy, I’ve got to get you back over there,’” Kitchens recalled. “I said, ‘What? I had a heart attack?’ and he was like, ‘No. I wish.’”
What Kitchens had is known as an aortic dissection, and he needed to be airlifted to Arizona Heart Hospital in Phoenix to repair the damage.
Given a 20 percent chance of survival, Kitchens endured 10 hours of emergency surgery to repair and reconstruct his aorta with a mechanical valve.
“What that means is that the wall of the aorta, the main blood vessel coming out of the heart, is torn,” Kitchens’ surgeon, Dr. Andrew Goldstein, said. “It’s torn internally. It hasn’t ruptured fully through the aorta, and that’s usually instantly fatal. When this happens, a very large number of people don’t even survive to get to the hospital.”
Not only did Kitchens pull through the surgery, but he recovered in time to start training camp with the Cardinals just two months after having the aortic dissection.
Going through such an ordeal gave Kitchens a greater appreciation, not only for the opportunities he had in the game of football, but also, the little things in life, including time with his wife, Ginger, and their two daughters, Bennett and Camden.
“I think as you go through life and go through being part of a team, you view yourself as just another person, another body,” Kitchens said. “I’m sure that everybody views themselves like that, but what it makes you realize is sometimes, the people around you care more about you than you realize.
“I think I was always one of those guys that respected life, that tried to live every day like it was his last. I like to feel like that’s the way I was. Realizing it costs absolutely nothing to be nice and you’re kind of the author to your own story, and that’s just part of my story now.”