As a news anchor on Pittsburgh’s KDKA TV, Susan Koeppen is used to reporting the news. But on November 20, 2011, she made news when she suffered sudden cardiac death near her home in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood.
Ms. Koeppen was out jogging with her friend Beth Sutton that morning in preparation for an upcoming half-marathon in which she had committed to run. Her next conscious memory is waking up several days later in a strange bed with two questions on her mind – “Where am I?” and “What happened?” She doesn’t remember her morning jog, nor does she recall what she did earlier that morning, the previous day or several days thereafter. All of those blanks had to be filled in by friends and family.
What they told her was that, in the midst of her run, Susan stopped, bent over to catch her breath, and suddenly collapsed to the pavement. Beth flagged down passersby, who turned out to be two University of Pittsburgh medical students, Vanessa Franco and Ranmal Samarasinghe, who administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), while another friend called 911. That brought a response from Pittsburgh Rescue Company No. 8, led by Lt. Dan Elias, who restarted Susan’s heart with a defibrillator and got her to a nearby hospital.
It took some time for her to register all of that information.
“I asked the same four questions over and over,” she has been told. In addition to the initial two queries, she expressed concern for two of her life’s priorities, asking “Who has the kids?” and “Did anyone call work?”
All of those concerns were subsequently eased by those at the scene of her event, and her cardiac issues were addressed by insertion of an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). Then, on March 6, 2012, she underwent surgery to repair the damaged mitral valve that was determined to be the cause of her sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).
Now feeling good and back to work, Susan has been a tireless advocated for the Pittsburgh-based Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation’s campaign to promote CPR and to see automated external defibrillators (AEDs) placed in airports, office buildings, schools, recreations areas, shopping malls, and any place people gather.
Several print and electronic media outlets in Pittsburgh, including KDKA TV and radio and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, ran stories on the near-tragic event experienced by this local celebrity. Speaking about her position as a media personality, Susan says, “I have an avenue to tell my story that most people don’t, “ adding, “I am very passionate about getting out the word on cardiac arrest and teaching people how to save lives.”
This active, vital woman is also in a position to dispel the myth that SCA only happens to overweight males who smoke, drink and subsist on a steady diet of fast food.
“I’ve played every sport from A to Z,” said the upstate New York native who, on a previous stint at another Pittsburgh TV station met her husband, plastic surgeon Jim O’Toole with whom she has three children, Baden, 6; Reagan, 5 and Declan, 3, “I’m an expert skier and I’ve played tennis all my life.”
Despite her travails, Susan has no intention of wallowing in self-pity or becoming a life-long victim of this harrowing episode in her life. She and Jim recently celebrated their 40th birthdays and she has found a renewed purpose in her role as an ambassador for sudden cardiac death awareness.
“I’m a very positive, upbeat person,” she says. “I just feel sorry for the people (who were present at the event) and my husband.”
Beth, a former Ice Capades performer turned figure skating teacher, agrees that the whole experience was very frightening, but, after she and Susan finished the 5K Highmark Walk For a Healthy Community as part of the SCA Foundation group dubbed “Susan’s Team,” she looked on the bright side, telling her friend, “It took six months, but we finally finished our walk.”