Healthy 25 year old female drops dead. Yeah, those things happen. My husband and I got a phone call at ten o'clock on a December night at our home in Houston with the news that our daughter had collapsed and was 'stabilized'. That was all the news we were going to get until we showed up in person in Ithaca, New York. I packed for warmth and death. After the longest airplane ride in our lives, we walked into a hospital room overwhelmed with beeping machinery and our daughter, small and unmoving, attended by a serious team of doctors and nurses. Even at this point, she was everyone's miracle--a survivor of Sudden Cardiac Arrest.
The stories came out slowly through the days of waiting. Her friends that were with her had spent the night in the waiting room, waiting for us, waiting for news. She was fine; she was gone. Everything happened so fast after that. A doctor happened to be at the restaurant and had just been recertified for CPR the day before and he was with her almost immediately. The fire department and the EMTs were there in less than eight minutes. A plan had already been made and they all rushed into action. Defibrillation once, twice, three times. Immediate intubation. Automated CPR machine applied. Chilled saline solution pumped through her veins to suspend animation in the field. All that activity beforehand and we were met with only the rhythmic rising and falling of forced breathing.
Her friends stayed and stayed, rotating so that we were never alone, day or night. The staff referred to the waiting room as our encampment because of the constant visitors and flow of food and drink. The University's crisis manager came in two and three times a day to check on our peace of mind and to offer any assistance. The resident doctor was calm and patient with us, letting us know what was happening, how things had changed, what was being done. The nurses were beyond compare in their care and expertise. Our other wonderful daughter is a cardiovascular ICU nurse and was there to comprehend and interpret the terminology and techniques.
A firefighter came to talk to us, to tell us what everyone had done to save our daughter. He stood there and wept when he told us that in all his years he had never had someone survive the initial episode. He would come in every day and check on "our girl" and report back to the station.
It takes days to bring a chilled patient back to a normal temperature and they are kept in an induced coma. She reacted appropriately to touch stimulus from toes to nose; vital organs showed no damage. But, we did not know what to expect in terms of brain activity. Normal temperature was reached but sedation continued because of a high fever of unknown origin. She remained pinned down by flexible tubes and her breathing apparatus, existing in another world.
On the fifth day, as I stood holding her hand and talking to her about nothing and anything, the nurse taking her vitals looked down at my daughter's other hand. "Does she know sign language?" she asked. "Yes, she learned it in pre-school." "She's signing. She's spelling something." I knew exactly who to bring bedside--her sister who could share secret messages. Our daughter was there, using her brain, giving us signals that she was alive--truly alive.
On Christmas Day we were greeted with a wave and a feeble smile from our awake and aware child. Tubes still attached, but the breathing tube gone, we were able to celebrate a miracle. After all of that, there was still a slow recovery and acclimation. She skipped working a semester, but was teaching labs in the fall and is continuing her studies as a PhD student. Since then she has traveled out of the country three times just to prove that nothing will stop her. We knew that, though. We are forever grateful to everyone who helped our daughter and helped us through this nightmare.