I remember the night my mother died. On March 10, 2020, my mother was as organized, and detail-oriented as ever. She laid out her work clothes and put her work materials by the door. Our entire household week was entered into a calendar. Believe me when I say my mother was her usual self--too much for a 7th grader.
At 2am I woke up to my father screaming "I'M TELLING YOU IT'S NOT WORKING!!" into the phone. He had been woken up to a sound down the hallway from the main bedroom--that sound was probably my mother seizing in sudden cardiac arrest. He called out a few times and when there was no answer, he walked down the hallway and found her in the guest bedroom-blue, stiff, and her eyes half-open. Both of her hands were clenched into fists and she looked dead. My dad called 911, pulled her on the floor and began CPR but it seemed hopeless. Everything is still a little blurry from the moment I saw her face. My father and I are both certified in CPR, but we never expected to use it at home. I helped out but I don't remember that much in that moment. I don't remember where our three shy pets were during those frantic minutes.
The ambulance swept up to our house in four minutes of the phone call. The driver drove across our yard right to our front door. Two police officers interviewed my father and searched the bathroom medicine cabinet. My father considered the officers to be very kind. At some point he realized they were also checking that he told a consistent story. When our cats played in the main bedroom at night my mother would move into another room. That's my guess on why she was in there.
My father and I were taken downstairs to be interviewed and the EMS worked on my mother. The police were impressed at how much detail I could give about my mother's habits, her medical history--even the length of time she had a cough at night. My mother's parents and sister had passed away and in recent years. Yes, she was lonely and missed them terribly. No, we didn't think she was suicidal. She didn't take medicine; she had a cough for three weeks. She was healthy. No, she didn't do drugs. No, she didn't drink. No, she didn't travel.
The open space we often enjoy in our house wasn't comforting when I heard my mother was shocked several times. I counted every paddle attempt. I heard the feet of many people pounding on the floor. There was no response. That group of people kept trying. I heard what they were saying. I knew how this story ended. I think my cats wound up hiding in the shower.
Because we were in the middle of COVID pandemic, there was some suspicion that the virus was behind this incident. When the EMS staff carried my mother out, we weren't allowed to be close to her. I was told the shocks continued along the way and in the Emergency Department. 11 or 12 total. She was clinically dead. The ER staff isolated us from others--now I know it's because we could have been carrying COVID.
Everyone in the ER asked about The Time it took to get the heart started again. I retold the story over and over. The team liked my attention to detail. I am guessing they wanted to know The Time so they could predict my mother's chances to survive. We believe it was 20 minutes and it was likely longer since my father doesn’t know how long it took for him to wake up. We braced ourselves in that ER to be officially notified of her death.
Instead my mother went into a medically induced coma for days. Given The Time there was little hope she would wake up. My father started looking for a smaller place for the two of us to live. He talked to some of his family and friends. He assured me that my school would remain the same even if we moved. My father called this incident a heart attack--he didn't know the difference between a heart attack and a sudden cardiac arrest. We fumbled through. I saw him cry once. I may have cried once. We hired
someone to walk our dog. We dreamed about having someone to clean up our house because we didn't know where to start. We overfed our cats. We pretended we knew what our schedules were. For the first few days we were told there was zero brain activity. I practiced saying goodbye but I didn't think I'd have a chance. On day 3 brain function was first detected. Based on The Time it looked like the best we could hope for-if my mother woke up at all- was for her to was regain 30-40% of brain function. Typically those who lack oxygen to the brain that long have significant damage. We were supposed to look into long term care for her in a special home. All this time we had to stay isolated due to COVID precautions in the state. I was home from school and I couldn’t see my friends. We learned from testing my mother didn't have COVID after all.
My father said the day my mother woke up she was smiling, and her speech was gentle. I've never heard of my mother described as gentle and still before. Large groups of medical staff gathered to see her. I guess it was something to see. It took a few days for her to improve enough to move to a regular room. I sent several texts to her that went unanswered because she was so confused in those first days. At one point the doctors realized my mother was trying to trick them with her answers to memory questions so she could go home. She had an ablation in the hospital and the doctors sealed up an extra electrical pathway related to Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. I have no idea what any of that means and I never heard of this condition. But somehow this information is supposed to make me feel better.
In the ICU, only my father could visit. After ICU even he couldn't visit because of COVID restrictions.
My mother came home and clocked in to work the very next morning. She was able to telework throughout the COVID crisis. Other than what she describes as occasional "trouble finding the right word" I see no difference in who she is at all. She is on me about schoolwork. She takes care of the schedule. She takes a bunch of medicines now though and is trying to exercise a little to get stronger.
For three months my mother wore a Zoll LifeVest external defibrillator. She gave the vest a name and would only take it off when showering. She now doesn't have one and just takes medication. That makes me nervous. They never really found the cause and her sister died of heart failure at a young age.
Only 6 percent of people who have out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrest survive. A tiny fraction of those who survive the arrest live with little impairments. We are tremendously grateful to medical staff who saved my mother. But I've learned family members are left with anxiety as we carry the memory of the incident. I hope that no one forgets that there are thousands of family members impacted by SCA each year. I'll know that even though we are healing I'll always remember the night my mother died.