Pharr native Diego Aguilera has always had a passion for wrestling, but he never thought he would use his skills to save a life.
Aguilera, 18, wrestled competitively throughout his time at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Memorial High School, and he graduated this May, he left to Buena Vista University in Iowa and began wrestling at the collegiate level.
What began as his first day working at a local Walmart on Sept. 17 near his new school ended with him becoming a hero in the city of Storm Lake.
Aguilera’s co-worker was showing him how to stock shelves, but suddenly he stopped talking.
“All of the sudden he just starts breathing heavy,” he recalled. “All of the sudden I saw his head slowly lean back like he was falling asleep. He wasn’t responding so I started checking for a heartbeat.”
Aguilera’s co-worker was having a heart attack in the middle of the store.
“He just looks at me like ‘I need to take a seat’, so we go to the back room and I’m asking him if this has happened before,” Aguilera said. “He’s turning white, his lips are super pale, he was just sweating profusely, just drenched.”
He recalls his co-worker slumping over onto a box of bananas.
Aguilera then remembered learning about CPR and how to perform chest compressions in high school, in preparation for a situation similar to the one he was in. Becoming CPR certified is a requirement for all PSJA Memorial wrestlers.
“Right after that I immediately started doing chest compressions, trying to get his heart to start pumping again,” he said. “For a little bit I started to think maybe he’s not going to come back.”
Less than a minute after, Aguilera was able to bring his coworker back to consciousness.
“I started speaking to him, trying to keep him conscious,” he said.
He asked his coworker questions about his family to keep him alert.
“I asked him his kids’ names, their ages,” Aguilera said. “Because when you’re in a time of stress, the thing that’s going to keep you going is thinking about your family, the people that need you.”
Aguilera ran to the other side of the store to call a code white, signifying an injury.
“Once the ambulance got there, it was my job to go to the front and bring him back to where we were at,” he said. “I let them take him and then I stayed there with him throughout the whole ordeal until they took him away.”
Aguilera said his co-worker is recovering and should be back at work by next month.
“I didn’t have any time to think ‘what’s the right thing to do?’” he said. “I just immediately started helping him. I’m an older sibling, so I’m used to being able to do that for my younger siblings.”
Aguilera said the demands his passion for wrestling at a collegiate level requires is comparable to the workload between in college.
“The intensity and the work ethic, it’s a little bit higher at the university level,” Aguilera said. “Over here in Iowa, it’s a main sport. So, these guys have been doing it since they were kids, where in Texas, we start as like freshmen in high school.”
Aguilera said this was not the first time he has saved a life. A few months ago, he helped a baby who was choking. After that incident, he learned how to think quickly, and said he was able to help his coworker without any hesitation.
“I think with every situation, I get faster and I’m ready to help immediately,” Aguilera said. “…I had no hesitation at all. I think the more I do, the better I react.”
Aguilera has now been branded a hero in his hometown as well as in Storm Lake, though he says he was simply doing what was right.
“It feels strange, because I’ve been stopped by people all over who want to shake my hand and congratulate me,” Aguilera said. It’s a weird feeling to be called a hero, because I don’t feel like a hero. It doesn’t feel heroic, it feels like I needed to do it. That’s something I would’ve done.”
Laura Juarez is a senior at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said Aguilera attended Weslaco East High. Aguilera actually attended PSJA Memorial.