I woke up today on Rick’s 4th re-birthday since his Sudden Cardiac Arrest on 2/27/12. I walked into our kitchen and just stared at the floor where it happened; and I wept. Today I am sharing my very personal side of our story that I have shared with very few… These feelings and memories are as visceral today as they were on the day it happened. As a wife and lay rescuer, I experienced the most spiritual moment of my life. It changed me. It gave me both hope and nightmares. It caused me to want to be more in life in the time Rick and I have left. From this experience, I came to understand the true meaning of gratitude. (Read on for more...)
February 27, 2012, 9:15AM. I am perturbed. My precious cat Buddy is relentlessly meowing, scratching and jumping as I am on a call in my home office. I take my furry friend out of the room and to my horror find the source of his concern. My beloved Rick is unresponsive and gasping for air on the kitchen floor. I don’t know it yet, but he is having a sudden cardiac arrest. His heart is not beating. He is not breathing. He is clinically dead.
(I dial 911 and open a life-saving parallel universe)
A paralyzing fear strikes me like lightening. The jolt is felt first in my head as if each synapse fires in unison. The thunder that follows is the pounding of a heart… my heart. I cannot piece together what I’m seeing. In these milliseconds, time stops but somehow I know I cannot. My fear swiftly transforms into realization and dread. And with outcome unknown, I just do…
Like sunlight overtaking storm clouds, a higher power radiates around and within me providing an undeniable steadiness. As my beloved takes his last agonizing breath, I am somehow calm. I find beauty in the fact I am here at this moment. He is in my arms. And, if this is the end, I know he will be okay either way. And I will be okay, too. And, with the stakes seemingly off the table, at least in my mind, I am strengthened and just know what I must do. Hands-only CPR.
My mind narrows and finds its focus. I breathe harder and faster as if to project it into my lifeless Rick below me. My heart still pounding powers my muscles. Super-human strength removes any limits I ever thought I had. And 225 pounds of dead weight (pardon the pun) is no problem to lift… in fact I won’t even remember it. Right now, I have one mission… I have one job... I must be Rick’s pumping-heart. And so I take a deep breath and begin.
(I have help on the line to 911 to coach me through it. I begin CPR and push hard [2” depth] and fast in the center of the chest to the beat of Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive”… a surrealistic musical trip through time, when time is all that matters.)
My knees and feet are in this world while my head, heart and hands are in the space between heaven and earth. My body is wrought with determination to keep my soul-mate in this world—if by G-d’s grace. Within this spiritual realm, I feel the angels of my parents who in life were my source of advice, strength and comfort. It seems crazy, but I know they are here with me… one on each shoulder… their calm familiar voices in my head encouraging me. An absurd thought pops into my mind, “It helps they were both in the medical world in life!”—my father a doctor my mother his nurse—even though there is no genetic marker for my task literally at “hand.”
I push on... I know not how this will end. I just push on and on and on... I don't give up even when my own body seems to abandon my will. I push and push and push again. For nearly 10 minutes I push. And, just when I think I can no longer be the heart of my precious Rick, help arrives and takes over.
I back away and watch the movie play out before me. My head is cloudy, my vision blurred. I seem to float. I am silent. I pace. I watch them at work applying their pads. My Rick is lifeless and blue-black. I pray. I question myself: “Did I do it right? Did I do it hard enough?” I bargain: “Oh please, G-d, don’t let me have failed…” I cannot open my eyes when they say “Clear” to shock his heart with their AED (automated external defibrillator). “ZAP!” then silence. I hear them say they “got a heartbeat.” I open my eyes again, and seem to check yet another mental box of hope. I thank G-d. I watch as they intubate him, load him on a gurney and bag him all the way to the ambulance waiting outside…
(CPR buys time, but only quick defibrillation from an AED can possibly restore life to a victim of Sudden Cardiac Arrest [SCA]. An SCA is when the heart stops beating, the victim is not conscious, not breathing and unresponsive. CPR squeezes the heart so that oxygenated blood circulates to the brain until an AED can shock the heart into a normal rhythm.)
In the ER, I am given a beautiful prayer blanket by the hospital support team. It was knitted by volunteer ladies in prayer. I wrap myself in its warmth and power… (I cherish this gift.) I talk endlessly with doctors again and again from the quiet of a little room used for those who have a family member in the ER who is not likely to survive. I wait. I cry. I wait. I pray. I wait. I am told he is alive but critical. I am told, “He will be in ICU… his outcome is unknown… the next 24 hours will be telling.”
Hours pass. The next time I see my Rick, he is hooked up to incredible contraptions in ICU. He is cool to the touch, in a coma, on a respirator, on life support. But he is alive. His body has been placed in therapeutic hypothermia to cool and protect his brain. His doctors are encouraged. Now my job is to push myself through this with family, friends, doctors, nurses and clergy from all faiths by my side. I wrap a rosary in Rick’s hand, and I sing the Misheberach Jewish prayer of healing… Rick is Catholic and I am Jewish. I welcome all prayers of all faiths. The tubes, constant beeps and glowing monitors remind me he is alive and fighting, and I must too. I am strong… stronger than I realize. But I dare not Google. Not yet… maybe never.
The next day, I become friends with a woman around my own age in the ICU waiting area. We all queue up at the same time awaiting our precious time with our beloveds. She is far from home. Her husband is fighting back from a stroke suffered while they were on vacation here in Orlando. “The happiest place on earth”… becomes the battleground of a lifetime. Together we support each other. I also find comfort in learning the stories of others in the ICU waiting area that I see every day… each with his or her own unimaginable tale. I believe my own strength helps others. My sister is at my side having flown in within hours of Rick’s collapse. Our friends support us. My business colleagues and clients are sending prayers and helping from afar. I see the absolute best in everyone around me. From doctors to nurses to the coffee/cookie lady to someone that simply holds the elevator for me. And, once again I experience a spiritual shift that touches my very soul. This is true life. This is humanity.
On days three and four, my beloved begins to awaken slowly… I am reminded of a newborn emerging into the world… first opening his eyes and looking around. In time Rick reacts to pain. With the pinch of a nurse, his beautiful hand recoils and a furrowed brow appears on his face… I stay by his side as long as they will let me. Late that night and still intubated, at last my beloved communicates with a not-so-nice hand gesture yet perfect-in-my-eyes “bird finger” in response to his brother’s joke. “YES! He’s in there!” I actually belly laugh. I am elevated beyond the stars.
It’s raining as I leave the hospital that night. I believe it is the tears of our guardian angels. I had faith from the get go; and I continue to have faith. I never doubted this moment, but was willing to accept another more likely outcome. So I cry tears of pure joy.
And, with that… life after SCA begins.
February 27, 2016. It’s now been four years from that fateful day. We are incredibly grateful for Rick’s miraculous outcome. He had about a 7% chance of survival and even less chance to have the complete brain function he has. Most do not have the outcome that Rick has been blessed with.
But the journey post-SCA is not an easy one for either of us. In ways, we both are very different people today. Only those who have walked in our shoes can understand that we grieve the loss of security and what was. At the same time, we have so much more in our lives as a result of this experience… so much more. Still, there are scary moments, false alarms, ER visits even now. And, as I write this my heart is pounding. I still battle PTSD and the “what if’s” that plague my psyche. Rick, like most SCA survivors we now call family, has his own internal battles that even I can never know, just as he can never fully know mine.
Yet, through it all, we are hand-in-hand. His struggle is my struggle, and my struggle is his. We push on today just as we pushed on that day on the floor in our kitchen. We are filled with incomprehensible gratitude to our hero cat, Buddy, who is now in heaven watching over us; to the amazing Orlando Fire Department's EMS team who restarted Rick’s heart and got him advanced care; to Orlando Health’s Orlando Regional Medical Center and its life-saving team. And, as a result of a miraculous chain of survival, Rick was granted the gift of more time. And, I have my beloved.
Life is good. We live differently than before. We “make memories that may not have been.” We are driven by a mission that is bigger than either of us—one that we believe in with all of our heart. We have many, many heart buddies all around the world; and we all are like family. We are CPR instructors and public advocates for this cause. Our mission is to help save more lives through spreading awareness of SCA, CPR and AEDs. I am doing it right now with this writing. In a word, we are "transformed."
Our message is simple: “CPR saves lives… and the life you save may be someone you love.”
Be a buddy… bring a buddy… save a buddy. Learn CPR and how to use an AED with your buddy. Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) can happen to anyone, at any age, at any time. 4 out of 5 SCAs happen at home. You have built-in tools to save a life—your hands. Only immediate CPR and an AED can possibly restore life. Facebook us at BuddyCPR to learn more.