Why I'll never forget my 27th birthday
April 15, 2015, two days before my birthday, was supposed to be another mundane weekday. But by 07:15 that Wednesday morning it was a life or death situation.
One of my friends had just died right in front of my eyes.
In the end everything worked out as best as it could. Some would call it a miracle, or say that everything happened for a reason.
All I know is what happened and what I’ve learned since.
At 06:00, April 15, 2015, my iphone alarm clock went off.
By 06:45 I was in my local Crossfit box, stretching and getting ready for the 07:00 group training session.
All of the other faces in the gym were familiar. It was always the same 10-15 crazy people who, like me, enjoyed destroying their bodies before most “normal” people even had their first dose of caffeine. We had bonded somewhat over the last year because of it.
A nice surprise was that one of my coworker friends was back. He had been suffering from a shoulder injury and that morning was his first time in the gym for several months.
At 07:00 sharp we begrudgingly gathered in a circle in the middle of the gym as the trainer explained the warmup. Every minute on the minute, jump rope, down-ups, and something else I can’t remember; it doesn’t matter.
Two minutes into the warmup I heard a shout next to me and turned to watch as my coworker friend fell directly backwards onto the ground. It happened so fast it was as if he had been struck by lightning. I rushed over to him and looked down. He was lying still and had a blank expression on his face, but was moaning and gasping for air.
I had never seen something like that. Was it a heart attack? Cardiac arrest?
I had no idea what was happening, but my high school lifeguarding training began to kick in.
I knelt down and immediately felt for a pulse. I couldn’t feel one. But he appeared to be breathing, albeit irregularly. Despite our efforts, he remained unresponsive.
Someone called an ambulance.
A second coworker of mine who was there held his hand, softly talking to him.
“It’s going to be okay.”
Over the next minute or so the gasps for air became softer and less frequent, until he wasn’t breathing at all. He was completely still. I checked again, no pulse.
He was clinically dead.
“We need to start CPR,” I told the trainer.
“Okay, two breaths.”
I was kneeling by my friend’s head, so I positioned his chin and head to open his airway and gave two rescue breaths.
Turning to the trainer, I said, “Now 30 compressions.”
The trainer had been kneeling by his side and so he began the chest compressions.
1, 2, 3, 4…CRACK…5, 6, 7….CRACK…
To me the sound of ribs breaking was like a rifle being fired three inches from my ear.
More rescue breaths.
“Is his chest rising?” “Yes.”
My other coworker who was holding his hand kept the count, saying out loud the number of compressions each time, up to 30. That day happened to be her 30th birthday.
Together we formed an improvised three-person rescue team.
Completely blank eyes stared up at me from the ground. Between rescue breathing, I closed them because I couldn’t stand the sight. Blood from where he hit his head on the ground was on my hands.
After a few minutes, or what felt like 100 years, the paramedics arrived.
One of them handed me a pair of scissors and told me to cut open his shirt. My hands were shaking so much I couldn’t manage to work the scissors. Someone else had to take over.
Eventually they attached the AED.
Twice they shocked him. It jolted his body so much that he nearly jumped off the floor.
After that his heart restarted.
I rode along in the ambulance as the paramedics rushed him to the hospital, where they performed a multitude of tests and kept him in an artificial coma. The doctors told us he had suffered a sudden cardiac arrest most likely caused by the narrowing of a coronary artery.
His heart had stopped before he even hit the ground. (I now know that the last gasping breaths were what is called agonal respiration, a bodily reflex that can occur even after the heart stops.)
Two days later, on my birthday, he woke up.
And within a few days he was back to his usual self, except for the broken ribs and no memory of it happening, or even the day before. Unbelievably, there wasn’t any permanent physical or neurological damage. Under the recommendation of his doctor he decided to take the next several months off of work to recover from the ordeal.
It was an incredible ending to by far the scariest event of my life.
The days and weeks afterwards were naturally a time for reflection.
Did everything happen for a reason? Was it some sort of divine intervention? If I died tomorrow, would I have lived a fulfilled life?
I’m not exactly sure of the answers to questions like these. It’s an ongoing process. But so far I know that I did learn a few things:
1. Don’t keep it inside.
I’m the kind of person that usually keeps my emotions and thoughts inside. But in the days and weeks afterward I desperately needed to talk to others.
I didn’t feel like a hero at all, even though we had “saved his life.” In fact, I was angry with myself for several days.
Why didn’t we start CPR immediately?
Why wasn’t our technique better?
I’m the one who introduced him to Crossfit in the first place. Is this my fault?
These were the irrational thoughts running through my head afterwards. This, combined with insomnia and flashbacks, made it a rough few days.
Thankfully, there were people I could talk to and I learned to open up. I am immensely grateful for them.
2. Beat the statistics
Being an engineering type, I spent a lot of time afterwards reading about the statistics of people who experience a sudden cardiac arrest. I wanted to know exactly what sort of odds we had been up against that morning.
They aren’t pretty.
In most places survival rates are in the single digits.
This is partly due to low bystander intervention rates, caused by fear and lack of knowledge. For example, when someone in the United States collapses in the street because of a sudden cardiac arrest, only about 32% receive bystander CPR.
After about 3-5 minutes of not receiving oxygen though, permanent brain damage begins and the chances of resuscitation fall dramatically.
CPR administered quickly will restore some of the blood flow to the brain and extend this window by a few minutes, buying time until paramedics can arrive and shock the heart into rhythm with an AED.
In high school I used to complain when I had to go to my annual CPR training session, which was a requirement for my job at the pool. But if the gym trainer and I didn’t have any knowledge of CPR that morning, I don’t think the outcome would have turned out so well.
It only takes a couple of hours to get certified in a CPR course. Even if you don’t have time for that there are plenty of websites, Apps, and YouTube videos which explain the basics. In a real life situation you might break some ribs, but just work though it. It means you're doing it properly.
Since that morning I’ve learned that the statistics aren’t good, but partly due to a lack of knowledge. Learning CPR brings those odds dramatically in your favor.
And considering that bystanders are usually the victim's friends or family, it’s one of the smartest investments you can make.
3. Don’t take life for granted
We’ve all heard it so many times that it is a cliché. But it’s true.
That morning all I cared about was how I was going to get through the workout over the next hour. A life or death situation was the furthest thing possible from my mind.
Life can change in an instant though, even if you are young and healthy.
In the longer term I’m sure I’ll reevaluate how I want to spend the rest of my professional and personal lives.
For now though, watching less TV and spending more time reading, writing, and being with the people I care about is one small step in that direction. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still indulge in some Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead from time to time….