This Day Can Change Your Life

“One day can change your life. One day can ruin your life. All life is three or four big days that change everything.” – Beverly Donofrio

Singular moments are those points in time when everything changes in your life, when the event is indelibly etched into your brain and your life is never the same again. It’s at times like these when any rational human being begins to appreciate the value of making the most of the time you have now.

Most people can recount with exacting detail such moments. It isn’t a task that requires a great deal of thought. Indeed, they tend to roll off the tongue as if they’re right on top of consciousness. 

I will relate here one such moment, a day that changed not only my life forever, but that of my husband and one of our sons, who was instrumental in saving my husband’s life. 

Dying and Coming Back to Life

My husband suffered cardiac arrest in the sitting room adjacent to our bedroom at 11 p.m. at night. One of our four children, an adult son, was visiting and still awake down the hall. He heard my husband choking and me yelling his name to wake up as I frantically called 9-1-1. My husband’s eyes were closed, he gasped for breath, choking, and then was immobile, head lolled back, no breathing, no pulse, nothing.

Our son immediately began CPR, having been trained years prior in the technique. This all happened within 1-2 minutes of the arrest. The 9-1-1 operator stayed on the line, counting as our son continued to perform CPR and I went downstairs to open the front door and usher the paramedics, fire department, sheriff’s deputies and other emergency responders into the house.

After taking over, the paramedics had to shock my husband three times, use an epi pen three times, and my spouse flatlined three times before they obtained a weak pulse. This took over 40 minutes. They then created a makeshift gurney and carried my husband downstairs and to the ambulance.

In the ER, emergency measures ensued, all the while my husband was unconscious, lifeless, barely clinging to life. He was then rushed to the cath lab where the cardiac surgeon on call inserted two stents to open the left and right arteries that were 75% and 90% closed, respectively. One of these was the “widow maker”, the left anterior descending (LAD), the big one. Afterward, the surgeon said that he’d never seen anyone come back from such an arrest, but that only time would tell what damage was done, or how long or even if my husband would recover.

Every second of those long hours is burned into my brain. I don’t remember breathing, although I do recall being incredibly cold. I saw my husband die. 

Many hours later, he was on a ventilator, hooked up to many machines, in the cardiac care unit. There would be weeks in the hospital and then acute cardiac rehab, followed by outpatient rehab before my husband came home.

It’s still a long recuperative process as his brain heals from anoxia (lack of oxygen from the cardiac arrest). Still, he’s extraordinarily grateful to be alive, thankful that his son was there to save his life, that everything happened in such a way that lifesaving emergency help came in time.

If you think this was a miracle, it was, no question about it. The two paramedics visited my husband in the hospital and said that less than 3% of people who suffer cardiac arrest come back. My husband was one of those miracles. Everything aligned and his life was spared. God has much more for him to do yet in life, a fact that he is keenly aware of.

What would have happened if I was alone in the house with my husband? I hadn’t been trained in CPR, and even if the 9-1-1 operator was able to talk me through it, the paramedics and fire department would have had to break down the door to gain entry to the house. Precious seconds would be lost and my husband wouldn’t be alive today.

Our son is strong, fit, and propelled by adrenaline to keep up the CPR despite no response from my husband. It was this slow flow of oxygen that kept his brain alive. Without oxygen for longer than 2 minutes and the brain dies.

Now that the event is in the past, I can only reflect on the preciousness of life, how quickly it can be snuffed out, and how little any of us appreciates just how thin the line between life and death really is.

The emotions I felt during and after my husband’s cardiac arrest have been overwhelming at times. I kept going because he needed me, and his fingers grasped mine ever so faintly even when he was not conscious. He knew I was there and his tenacious spirit – with God’s help – kept him going then and now.

Emotional Ups and Downs

Subsequent to coming home, my husband has suffered a roller coaster of emotional ups and downs. He gets frustrated and depressed when he struggles to find a word, tie his shoes, get dressed. Writing and reading are difficult challenges, and therapy helps him find coping techniques to make tasks easier while his brain continues to heal.

He’s also abrupt, snaps out in impatience, and then apologizes. He’s no longer crying so easily as he did in the days following removal of the ventilator. Although he has no memory of what happened, hearing the details brought him to tears quickly. What he knows now about his cardiac arrest is only what he’s been told. He will likely never remember the event. 

What he does know is how much his family loves and supports him. We are his rock and steadfastly stand by him regardless of the challenges or how long his healing and recovery takes.

Emotionally, we’re all affected by this singular event. I’d be lying if I said otherwise, although I’m really fortunate to have a great support system and good coping mechanisms of my own. Self-care is critically important as well, since if I’m not well rested or fail to take care of myself, I’m no good as a caregiver to my husband.

As for my personal account of a day that changed my life forever, this is the big one. Although there have been others, nothing compares with watching someone die and being revived. To know that I played even a small part in that miracle fills me with chills and the knowledge that God watched over us in that moment. The meaning of life doesn’t get clearer than that.

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