The patient sat with a blanket over their head. They were a little goofy and fairly expressed their distaste of their bed and various lines (IVs, urinary catheter, etc.). I didn’t blame them for not liking the hospital; nobody wants to get sick. The patient answered many questions correctly – they knew their name and their spouse’s name – but they couldn’t tell me where they were, why they were there, or what month it was. Yet, to see them sitting there alert and able to talk with me was a miracle that I was humbled to see.
The patient’s spouse and child had saved them. The patient had a cardiac arrest (their heart stopped) after going to bed one night. Their spouse noticed, pulled them to the floor, and started chest compressions. Sometime in that whirlwind, 9-1-1 was called and their teenaged child helped the spouse do compressions. The spouse and child did compressions for 45 minutes, just the two of them, until an ambulance showed up. Once the ambulance crew arrived, the patient received a couple of shocks and then, the patient’s pulse returned.
When I started as an EMT, my first medical experience, my crew chief told me cardiac arrest is death. All we can do is try to give the person’s whose heart stopped a chance at a cat life by doing CPR to pump blood while the heart isn’t pumping, delivering shocks (if indicated) to jumpstart the heart, and giving medications that sometimes help the heart restart.
It’s important to realize that getting a pulse back isn’t the end of cardiac arrest. After getting a pulse back the main question is whether the heart stopped so long that the brain was irreversibly damaged by lack of blood flow. The likelihood of brain damage from lack of blood increases the longer the patient remains without a pulse. 45 minutes of CPR, especially CPR by non-medical people who don’t have access to a device that can deliver a shock, is a REALLY long time.
Most people won’t wake up after 45 minutes of CPR. But this patient did. They woke up and their brain was well enough to talk and move their body. It was too early to know if they’d fully recover to the mental state they’d had before their heart stopped. However, what was obvious when they woke up was that they were mostly there. Their brain had survived 45 minutes without a pumping heart thanks to their spouse and child.
When we successfully get a pulse back after CPR and the patient doesn’t immediately wake up, usually they are sedated and put on a ventilator (breathing machine) for 72 hours. This gives their brain time to rest after not receiving good blood flow. Usually after those 72 hours of rest, we decrease their sedation (medications used to put people to sleep while on a ventilator) and see how their brain is working. This patient underwent this process of sedation and then wakening after 72 hours.
It’s impossible to know exactly what the patient’s spouse and child felt as they waited those 72 hours to see if their loved one would wake up. What I can say from seeing them sitting at the patient’s bedside and sleeping in the hospital waiting room, is that the experience changed them. Once the patient woke up, the stress floating away from their family members was almost tangible. The spouse and child had saved the patient’s life; they had stepped up when the powers that be asked them to step up. They had given the patient a second chance at life. They were, by all definitions I know, heroes.