My wife, Donna, and I had spent most of Saturday, Feb. 12, at a soccer field where our youngest was playing in a tournament. Joseph, 11, was the youngest of our four, so there would only be a few more years of soccer! It was over about 6 p.m. and we rushed home, cleaned up and met some friends for dinner at a restaurant a few miles away. After a long, leisurely dinner we drove the short distance home and proceeded with our usual nighttime routine getting the kids to bed.
It was a bit unusual for a weekend in that all the kids happened to be home and we only had one friend on hand – typically at least one would be either away until late or they would be sleeping at a friend’s or having friend over. I did not feel very well since a cold was coming on, so I slugged down some Nyquil and hit the sack. Donna was in the adjacent bedroom saying prayers with Joseph. No sooner than my head hit the pillow, Josh, 18, ran in screaming that Donna had passed out – a bit unusual since she seemed normal earlier and was in perfect health. “How does a 125-pound female with low blood pressure just keel over?” I was thinking. “Maybe she just got lightheaded and fainted?”
I rushed to the next room thinking she would be getting off the floor and feeling foolish, but I found a lifeless heap that was my wife. It was very easy to see that this was not something minor, but what? Did she have a stroke? That was my first thought. She was limp and not breathing, her eyes were glassy, and after checking, I determined there was no heartbeat. Without thinking too much, I immediately instructed the kids to call 911 while I went into action performing CPR. It had been probably 30 years since I had CPR training in health class and Boy Scouts, but I knew the basic principles. A few breaths and a few compressions. Was it 5 to 1 or 15 to 2 – can’t remember exactly, but just do something!
I started CPR in a panic and pressed hard on her chest while the 911 operator spoke to my son on the phone. The kids were screaming and crying and I felt like I was in a dream state. This was too surreal to actually be happening, but I had to keep myself together. Her life depended on it. I really can’t remember what happened the next several minutes, except that I started CPR and then the medics arrived, nothing in between. I later found out that Josh was on the phone with 911 for 7 minutes 41 seconds, a fairly long time to be doing CPR since it can be somewhat tiring. I suppose this is where adrenaline helps!
The medics arrived and took over. They shocked her twice with the automated external defribillator (AED) and I heard one of them say they got a pulse. Thank goodness! What an awful thing for the kids to witness. Soon an ambulance arrived with more medics and then a couple of police officers (multiple kids called 911). Needless to say, it was pretty crowded in the house and I can’t imagine what the neighbors were thinking, but that was the last thing on my mind. We packed up and headed to Carolinas Medical Center.
It’s difficult to piece together everything that happened that night, but I do remember many prayers on the way to the hospital and not knowing whether she would be alive when we arrived. The doctors told me in these cases they would cool the body down for 24 hours to reduce the chance of serious brain injury, but that we should expect mild impairment in a best-case scenario. Donna was kept under sedation and cooled for 30 hours, during which time I questioned everything I had done. Did I breathe right? Did I do chest compressions correctly? Did I do enough chest compressions? Would she wake up and be normal?
Over the next three weeks in the hospital, talking with doctors, nurses, those familiar with cardiac arrest, and after doing a ton of internet research, I discovered some interesting statistics. It’s exceedingly rare to survive out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, much more so with no brain injury. But four months later you would never know Donna had the “event,” as we call it, other than she now has an implanted defibrillator and had a few broken ribs. The doctors have run dozens of tests and she was closely monitored for three weeks and they cannot determine what triggered her arrest. If this can happen to Donna, it can literally happen to anyone.
Survivability in the event of cardiac arrest depends on many factors, but the most important is time. Without oxygen, brain damage can start in 4 minutes. Even with CPR, circulation is only 40% of normal, so the correct technique is imperative. I discovered that broken ribs should almost be the norm if CPR is done correctly! No one ever thinks they will have to do CPR, much less on their wife. I’m thankful that I had CPR training 30 years ago and I knew enough to save a life. I would encourage everyone to take a class because you never know when you will need it!