A standard Monday evening with my husband Dan suddenly turned tragic. One month ago, while watching Netflix together, Dan announced he wasn’t feeling well, then collapsed to the floor. I grabbed my mobile phone and called 911.
“My husband is having a medical emergency.” I provided my apartment address, then the 911 dispatcher asked me whether Dan was breathing. I described the unusual noises he was making, which I later learned were Dan’s final gasps for air. His heart had stopped.
The dispatcher directed me to turn Dan over to his back and to begin CPR immediately. I hadn’t taken CPR training since I was a kid, but the instructions provided over the phone were simple enough: 1-2-3-4-repeat. I felt the adrenaline leading my seemingly automated actions.
First responders knocked on my apartment door 6 minutes into my performing CPR. Paramedics moved Dan’s body from the bedroom to the open kitchen/dining space. They attached a chest compression machine called “Lucas” to continue the CPR, and they shocked him with an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) 3 times over the next 20 minutes.
I’ve watched a lot of movie scenes where responders often give up trying to resuscitate someone after just a couple of minutes. Those scenes replayed in my head, and I feared that the medics would be giving up at any moment. I endured this horrific scene while also answering questions from a police officer. With shaking hands and flowing tears, I provided Officer Dill with details about the incident and Dan’s medical background. He encouraged me to stay positive because Dan was receiving the best care possible from a highly competent team of experts. His compassion provided me with comfort and hope.
Once Dan was stabilized, he was taken to Overlake hospital, just a few blocks from our home in downtown Bellevue, Washington. Officer Dill said he and the remaining crew would clean and lock up my apartment, and that he would return my keys to me at the hospital (which he so kindly did).
When one of the medics had overheard that I don’t have a car, he offered to drive me to the hospital to be with Dan. He leveraged time with me to ask more questions about Dan, which he later relayed to the ER staff. Then Dan’s ER doctor asked me a more detailed series of questions, while another staff member typed my answers into their system. In between answering questions and crying my eyes out, I called family members to let them know what was happening.
Meanwhile, medics placed Dan on a ventilator, and they applied therapeutic hypothermia, which would hopefully prevent brain damage. I then sat in a chair and held Dan’s hand in the ER until they sent me home for the night. Alone in my apartment, I wailed from the pain of not knowing if Dan would ever come home again.
The next morning, Dan’s cardiologist sat with me to share Dan’s status and prospects. Here are the terrifying statements I remember:
He may not wake up. Be prepared for that.
Even if he does wake up, he will likely be brain damaged.
Even if he is able to leave the hospital at some point, he will likely be returning again with heart failure.
She further explained that his heart was extremely weak, but it’s unclear whether it was already weak or if the cardiac arrest caused it. My emotions were overwhelming, but I managed to thank the doctor for her candor and care.
What could have caused Dan’s heart to suddenly stop? I performed hours of research to understand Dan’s condition. I learned that cardiac arrest is sometimes, but not always, caused by a heart attack. Dan had no signs of a heart attack. His only symptoms were consistent nausea and abdomen pain, which had become progressively worse over the years. What a terrifying mystery.
What are his chances of survival? I learned that the chance of survival after a cardiac arrest (when your heart stops) outside of a hospital is about 10%. Factors that increase the survival rate include:
- CPR is performed within the first 2 minutes (CHECK!)
- The victim is without oxygen for less than 10 minutes total (I think CHECK.)
- Relatively young and healthy victim (CHECK! Dan is fit and only 55.)
- Quality medical care (CHECK! Bellevue’s Overlake hospital is one of the best in the world.)
I spent a second night alone in my empty apartment, crying through most of it, worried about what might happen next and the decisions I might have to make. Fortunately, that was the last night I spent alone! Our daughter Sarah, and Dan’s mother Whitehawk, both flew to Seattle, providing me with much needed support.
Due to COVID-19, the hospital ICU had a policy of having only one visitor per day (visiting hours are 7am-7pm). However, because Dan was close to being considered “EOL” (end of life), they allowed both Sarah and Whitehawk to see him, one at a time. Shortly after they arrived, Dan woke up a few times, each time struggling, confused, and wanting to leave the hospital bed; the nurses sedated him again. It was difficult to watch, especially because Dan suffers from severe PTSD, specifically in medical settings.
The next day (Wednesday), Sarah and I played cards and chatted next to Dan. She helped me remain calm during this challenging time, and we hoped that our voices would give Dan comfort. Later that morning, Dan’s doctor stopped the sedation drip, took out his breathing tube, and helped Dan wake up fully and peacefully. Hooray!!!
Of course he was confused about what happened, but Dan was remarkably lucid and able to speak in complete sentences! He didn’t remember the year or what city we live in, but he certainly knew me. He stared into my eyes and said “I want to be with you forever!” For the next several hours, he continually told me he loved me. Sometimes he would fall asleep, then wake up, look around, see me, then tell me how beautiful I am. He also had the whole room laughing at his funny, intelligent comments. He even sang us some Barry White with his deep raspy (post-breathing-tube) voice. It felt so good to be laughing and to feel joy again!
The hospital sent us home at night (7pm-7am), per standard policy. Sarah, Whitehawk, and I hugged and cried tears of joy that evening. I finally slept several hours.
Unfortunately, I arrived on the 4th day (Thursday) to find Dan had a night full of panic attacks. He also had intense pain, and he continually vomited and dry heaved. He was no longer lucid; he couldn’t keep his eyes focused on anything, and he couldn’t say more than a couple of words. I was devastated.
I explained to the doctor that Dan’s abdomen pain and nausea had been occurring for years, and it had become especially bad the past several months. The doctor ordered an ultrasound, and VOILA, she found a highly infected gall bladder with gall stones — known as cholecystitis. She called my mobile phone to tell me the great news, and arranged the next steps immediately.
Because of Dan’s weakened condition, doctors couldn’t perform surgery to remove his gall bladder (cholecystectomy). In the interim, they inserted a tube, a.k.a. choley bag, into his abdomen to drain the backed up bile. (The surgeon will remove it when he has the cholecystectomy in the future.)
When Dan awoke from the procedure, it was clear that his abdominal pain was gone, and he was no longer nauseous. He was able to focus, talk, and eventually eat again. Hooray!!!
After spending 5 days in the ICU, Dan spent 2 days in a regular hospital room. Having more space and less medical equipment was quite helpful for his PTSD. Plus, the hospital now allowed me to spend the night so I could help keep him calm.
His doctor was supportive of Dan’s desire to leave the hospital as soon as reasonably possible. She ordered a second echocardiogram to check on the status of his heart.
Dan’s heart was pumping blood at 15% capacity when he was first admitted to the hospital. After one week, his heart was pumping at 60% capacity. The desired percentage is 60-65%! His doctor was astounded by these results.
I think Dan had asked, “When can I go home?” to every hospital staff member that entered his room. I am extremely pleased with the competence and care of Overlake hospital, but his doctor and I knew that Dan would thrive better at home. He came home exactly 7 days after his cardiac arrest.
Dan has slowly been re-gaining his health, strength, and mental focus over the past few weeks. There’s been some scares along the way, but he is still improving overall. His memory is fully back, except that he doesn’t remember his time in the hospital — which is quite ideal! His blood pressure is also back to normal, so he’s even been taken off all his blood pressure medication. We still don’t know whether Dan has an underlying heart condition, so he is getting some additional tests done soon.
My life partner died in front of me, multiple times, and all I wanted was for him to come back to me. I am incredibly thankful to the 911 dispatcher, Bellevue first responders, and Overlake hospital medical staff. Their care and competence enabled Dan to have many more life adventures with me. HOORAY!!!