Posted by mnewman on 09/15/2009

My personal connection to the cause

I have worked for many years in the field of emergency medical services. People often ask me why I am interested in sudden cardiac arrest. Do I have a personal experience that motivates me?

I  respond that I am simply interested because I recognize the huge potential for saving so many lives cut drastically short by this preventable and treatable condition. And, I have been blessed to know and work with many of the giants in the field.

In addition, I've developed a deep connection with people personally affected by sudden cardiac arrest. I have been blessed to know many survivors of sudden cardiac arrest—and many families who have lost someone dear to them because of this insidious stalker. Sooner or later, I have come to understand, sudden cardiac arrest touches every one of us.

My time came five years ago. For many years, our family tradition has been to visit the Outer Banks of North Carolina. OBX became our refuge, our chance to renew relationships with our large extended family, scattered randomly like so many other American families across the nation. A chance for brothers, sisters, children, and grandchildren to get together, share great times, and make great memories.

My father had died from Alzheimer’s disease in the summer of 2003. My mother, Maggi May--no relation to the subject of Rod Stewart's song--missed her husband of more than 50 years and could not wait to be with him again. (In retrospect, we realized she had been gradually giving away all her worldly possessions to her children and grandchildren—a clear indication she was ready to move on.)

On the last day of our vacation in 2004, my brothers, sisters and I were chatting over early morning coffee, munching “Apple Uglies” from the Orange Blossom Cafe, and laughing about the week’s adventures.

Suddenly, we realized that no one had seen Mom, who was an avid early riser. We rushed to her room and found her collapsed on the bathroom floor. She was “ashen gray,” a color that I never really understood, but you know what it is when you see it. Her skin was definitely "ashen" except where the blood had pooled and there her skin was motley blue. Her fingers, so often wrapped around rosary beads, were firmly clenched. And her face radiated deep peace.

For a terribly long moment, we panicked and were frozen in a state of shock—as if we were caught in a nightmare--the kind where you try to wrench yourself out of a dream state into reality. My brother called 9-1-1 and I started CPR. I pushed down as hard and fast as I could. I felt the dreadful crackling of her ribs and recoiled from the sensation. Having been a CPR instructor and volunteer EMT, I knew this was to be expected, but it was startling and disturbing just the same. I thought I heard Mom breathe several times, but it was just the final gasping of goodbye. My sister held Mom's hand, trying to extend her rigid fingers. It was hard for all of us to see clearly then, through streams of salty weeping.

The local EMS squad probably arrived quickly, but it seemed like forever, and needless to say, it was too late. They tried everything, mostly, I suppose, out of respect for the family. I remember telling them to push harder, straight up and down, not at an angle, and to Please Dear God to hurry with the defibrillator.

As I saw my mother in this state of transition, I started to understand what they mean by “futile”—a clinical word tossed around in scientific circles that takes on profound gravity when it appears in the form of a loved one right before your eyes. And then, that everything I had tried to learn about and everything I had written about for years took on a very personal meaning.

So now I, too, have a personal connection to the cause and this motivates me. At the same time, I am  motivated by my longstanding conviction that sudden cardiac arrest is probably the greatest public health problem of our time. And the realization that so much of the solution is within reach. We have the ability to save so many more lives right at our fingertips.

My mother died on July 17, 2004 at the end of a happy family vacation, surrounded by her loved ones.

Later we realized that on the wall just above where we found her there was a framed print with this inscription: “Heaven’s a little closer in a house by the sea.”

Dedicated to Margaret Mary May, my mother, whose 84th birthday would have been today.