When Ernie Hartlieb arrived at Miami University as a freshman in the fall of 1997, the campus he’d visited just once seemed eerily too familiar. When nearly every classroom, dining hall, or dorm the RedHawk forward entered gave him a peculiar sense of deja vu, he realized he had seen all of these places before.
Ernie had seen these places he was encountering for the first time months before, while lying in an induced coma.
“When I was under, I was having dreams about Miami, and I’d only been there once on the recruiting trip,” says Ernie. “I dreamed of things I never visited. Then I got there, and it was like, whoa! I was walking into places, and I’d get this weird feeling. I’d seen it before.”
On June 24, 1997, Hartlieb suffered an extensive head injury and lay comatose for eleven days.
“It happened right before my freshman year, in the summertime,” says the Sterling Heights, Mich., native. “I was playing pickup hockey at Fraser Ice Arena in Fraser, Mich. I didn’t have my chinstrap on.”
The Miami sophomore says that he collided with a friend, his helmet came off, and his skull hit the ice, fracturing on impact.
“Five titanium plates and 30 pins,” says Ernie. “They didn’t expect me to live.”
The 19-year-old sounds casual when he talks about his brush with death, but his father, Henry Hartlieb, repeats the story with the intensity of a man who nearly lost his son.
“It was a frightening experience,” says Henry, his voice low and sober.
“He was playing hockey the summer before last up in Fraser, just trying to stay in shape for his first college season. I was at work at the time. They were playing in the afternoon. I got home, and I checked the answering machine, and I had a message saying, ‘Mr. Hartlieb, you should get over to the hospital because Ernie fell and hit his head.’ And that was really all it said. I didn’t know how serious it was or anything.”
It wasn’t until Henry arrived at Mount Clemens General Hospital in Mount Clemens, Mich., that he learned that his son was fighting for his life. “When I got there the hospital staff was waiting for me at the door. They said he had fractured his skull and had to go up to surgery immediately because he had pressure on the brain that they had to relieve.
“I got to see him go up in the elevator into surgery, and that was the last time I saw him until he was coming out of surgery. It was horrible. For about four or five hours we just sat and waited, not knowing what was going to happen.”
No one, including the medical staff, knew whether or not Ernie was going to survive his accident and subsequent operation.
“After he came out, we talked to the doctor, who said it was too early to tell just what kind of condition he was going to be in, and even if he was going to make it. We were pretty shocked, to say the least.
“This went on for probably three or four days, not knowing which direction he was going to take before we had some positive signs from the doctor that the pressure was starting to come down and it looked as though he was going to recover.”
The doctors at Mount Clemens induced coma “to keep Ernie quiet,” says Ernie’s father, and for the first few days after the operation, Ernie’s parents and his best friend, fellow RedHawk Jason Deskins, were forbidden to visit him.
“They measured pressure on the brain, and every time someone came in to see him, the pressure would go up so they made us stay out for a couple of days,” says Henry. Ernie’s mother, Randa Hartlieb, says that while she was kept from visiting her son while he recovered from surgery, “I was not normal.”
Ernie says he knows how difficult it was for his parents, although he doesn’t remember sensing their presence when they were near. “My mom was a wreck. They told her on that first night that I was supposed to die.”
After it was clear that Ernie would live, his parents began to wonder what life would be like for their son after this traumatic injury. “We’re just thankful he came out of it alive,” says Henry. “Hockey was the last thing on our minds when all of this happened. When he started to recover, all we asked for is that he be normal and healthy.”
Miami head coach Mark Mazzoleni went to visit Ernie after the young man had been awakened from the induced coma. “It was awful. He was just off the coma. He was aware and talking. When you know Ernie, you know what he’s like, and there he was lying there cracking jokes.
“I didn’t know if he’d play. I didn’t even know if he’d walk.”
Ernie was released after spending nearly a month at Mount Clemens.
“When he got out of the hospital, we had to carry him to the car and carry him to his bed. He couldn’t walk,” says Henry. “He’d lost about 30 or 40 pounds, but he started to gain it back pretty quickly once he got home. He started eating again and getting his strength back, and his main goal was to make it to the first day of school.”
Not only did Ernie make it to the first day of school, but he was practicing with the team, and played his first game just six months after his ordeal. Eight months after shattering his skull, Ernie scored his first collegiate goal in Miami’s 6-5 loss in Bowling Green on March 7, 1998.
“He gave me the puck and I cried,” says his mother.
Ernie says his doctors credit his quick recovery to his youth and excellent physical condition, but as speedy as his return bto hockey was, Ernie says it felt like forever before he could play again.
“I was really antsy,” says Ernie. “It took until Christmas for the doctors in Cincinnati to give me the OK to play. I was mad that Coach Mazzoleni wouldn’t let me play.”
“When he came back to school, he did not participate in dry-land conditioning,” says Mazzoleni. “All of a sudden, though, he was skating, and that’s when we had a problem because he really wanted to go.”
Mazzoleni chuckles when he tells the story because it illustrates so much of Ernie’s character. “Ernie is a young man full of positive energy. He’s looked on positively by his peers and coaches because of that energy.
“He wanted to go.”
A year and a half after his injury and one year after his return to hockey, Ernie Hartlieb is a an integral part of a young Miami team, with six goals and six assists in 26 games this season.
“His skills are a lot better than most people realize,” says Mazzoleni, “and he’s certainly earned the right to play.”
Henry Hartlieb says that his son “hasn’t changed a bit,” but his mother sees a difference. “He’s gutsier now than ever. Nothing fazes him any more. And that scares me.”
The Miami sophomore thinks his mother worries too much, but he concedes that the incident remains as real now as it was in the summer of 1997. “It’s been a year and a half, and I talk about it every day as though it were yesterday.”
Ernie says he remembers that sense of deja vu that accompanied him when he began school in Oxford, Oh., in the early autumn of 1997, and he clings to the belief that he “visited” the Miami campus months before he arrived. People may scoff at his claims, says Randa Hartlieb, but she, for one, believes what Ernie tells her of what he remembers from the coma.
After all, she understands belief.
“While he was under, he had a dream that somebody pulled him from the other side, so God was with him,” says Randa.
“I prayed a lot, and everybody else prayed with him. God wanted him on this earth.”