Later this week I will be able to say that it has been 20 years since I suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. This last week of the year is always one that hits me with mixed emotions, emotions that I always keep to myself. The happiness I should feel for being the one survivor out of 20 cardiac arrests (at that time) is quickly replaced by the guilt I feel for causing fear and anxiety to my family and close friends, and especially to my wife and my parents.
It was late December 2000. I was only 29 years old, and my fiancé (now my wife) and I flew to Florida to visit her grandparents and take a short, 4-day cruise in the Caribbean. On the first full day on the cruise, we went snorkeling, but the ocean waves were very rough. Almost everyone who went on this snorkeling excursion got sick, and I was no exception. Later that evening, as we were getting ready to go down to the dining room for the formal dinner, I took a Dramamine because I was still experiencing some sea sickness. About a half-hour later I collapsed from my chair in the dining room, surrounded by over hundred other passengers who were enjoying their vacation. I was experiencing a cardiac arrest, most likely caused by the combination of the Dramamine with my dehydration caused by the extreme sea sickness during snorkeling.
Three passengers on the ship, an emergency room doctor, a critical care nurse, and a medical student, immediately came over and recognized that I was non-responsive. They quickly started administering CPR, while crew members scrambled to get the ship’s doctor. A few minutes later, the ship’s doctor arrived with a recently installed defibrillator, and shocked my heart back to a normal rhythm. He then stabilized me and kept me in an induced coma as the ship increased its speed towards the nearest port, which was in Mexico. On arrival, the ship arraigned a small plane to fly my wife and me, while I was still induced, to a Miami hospital.
My parents dropped everything and flew down from Boston to be by my side in Miami. My future in-laws also drove to Miami from the west coast of Florida. The doctors in Miami prepared my wife and my parents for the worst: I probably suffered some sort of brain damage because of the cardiac arrest and I might need long-term constant care. It took me a few days to wake up, and when I did, I was not myself.
Now keep in mind, I still have no memory whatsoever of being on the cruise ship, or even our time in Florida a few days before the cruise. Everything I just told you was repeated to me by my wife. Additionally, the two weeks I spent in the Miami hospital are a blur. I vaguely remember my parents being there, and only on the last day.I also do not remember talking to my brother or my best friends over the phone while I was in the Miami hospital. I do remember that I received an AICD (automated implantable cardioverter defibrillator), while I was in Miami. I also remember my wife and I arriving in Boston and driving back to our new home, but I was not able to recognize our street or any of the other houses, until we pulled up to our house.
It took me a couple months to recover to about 95%, mentally. Although I was cleared to start driving again 30 days later, I remember that my mind was not as sharp for 3-4 months. I had an extremely hard time staying focused and listening to people. Every day I got a little better, and I credit most of my cognitive recovery to the love and support I received from my wife and my parents.
Five months after I was released from the hospital, we had our wedding, as planned. It was the happiest day of my life, so far. Three months later, I quit my job. It was a new job which I began only two months before I went on the cruise. I could not remember some of my onboard training, and my performance suffered, and I was nervous to drive long distances and stay overnight all by myself in remote parts of Vermont and upstate New York.
My parents, who owned a small retail business, hired me. It was there that I gained the confidence in myself to problem solve and make sound decisions. When I made mistakes, and I did make a few in the beginning, they were there to help and support me. It was the best therapy anyone could receive, and I am incredibly lucky that my parents were able to provide me with not just their love and support, but with a resource where I could rebuild those skills in an environment that I was extremely comfortable in.
As for my wife, she has been my “rock” every single day. When I was nervous about quitting my job, she supported me 100%. And two years later, while still working at my parents’ store, she supported me when I decided to go back to graduate school at night to get my MBA. My parents fully supported my decision as well. And when I graduated, all three of them were sitting near the front row, with the biggest smiles on their faces.
In between working and going to school at night, I experienced two new “happiest” days of my life: the birth of our daughters. Now teenagers, they bring me more joy and happiness that I could ever imagine. I love being a father, and I cherish every moment I have with them.
So, as I reflect on these past 20 years, I realize that the feelings of guilt and nervousness I experienced early on have been replaced with pride, gratitude, love, support, resilience, and happiness.
And luck - I am incredibly lucky that I was in a full dining room, and not resting in my cabin or in the elevator like I was just a few minutes before. I am also lucky, that at the time, the cruise liners were just starting to carry defibrillators on board.
I now realize that I should have started this blog a little differently. In my first line, I wrote:
“…. it has been 20 years since I suffered a sudden cardiac arrest.”
I should have said: “…. it has been 20 years since I SURVIVED a sudden cardiac arrest.”
Perhaps one day soon you will hear me shout it from the rooftops.
NOTE: Michael Robie now serves on the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation Board of Directors.