Cristina's Heart Scar, Chapter 6: Cardiac Arrest, Part 2

I’d like to preface this chapter by thanking Lizzie, my parents and my aunt for helping me write today’s post. It’s strange, but although I was there the whole time I didn’t actually experience the majority of that night, so I had to rely on their memories and my aunt’s detailed notes to tell the story.

Sunday, April 17, 2011 

The taxi ride to Union Station was pretty quiet. We all had a bit of that gloomy feeling that accompanies the end of any great trip, especially one you’d been looking forward to for months. The thought that it was over, and that we all had to be back at work on Monday, was starting to settle in.

When we got to the train station it was packed. Not a seat to be had. We roamed around the shops for a few minutes, but decided to stand by the door and wait for our train to arrive. I remember being exhausted, silently willing the train to pull up. I felt like I couldn’t stand a moment longer.

When it finally arrived at the station, we rushed on to make sure we all got seats together. I sat next to my friend, Erica, shoved my bag under the seat in front of me, and reached for my headphones so I could watch a movie on my phone. I chose Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Within seconds of the opening credits I was fast asleep. I don’t think Audrey had even taken her first bite of croissant.

When Erica gently woke me up, my head resting on her shoulder, I thought we were still in D.C. “We’re back in New York, babe” she whispered sweetly. “You slept the whole way.”

“Oh, wow. That felt like two seconds,” I couldn’t believe I’d been sleeping for three hours.

“How’s your chest feeling?”

“Better, I think. I can’t really tell, I’m so sleepy,” I stretched in my seat, trying to wake up my muscles.

We got off the train and met up with the rest of the girls to say goodbye. We all lived in different neighborhoods (except for Lizzie and I), so we gave each other hugs in the station, promised to make dinner plans soon and went our separate ways.

“Feel better, Tini!” somebody yelled out as Lizzie and I walked away.

Our subway ride to the apartment was super easy. A few minutes later we made it to our stop, and as I climbed the stairs to street level, I remember it taking every ounce of effort to go up. It felt like my bag weighed a million pounds.

On our two block walk to the apartment Lizzie and I chatted about the weekend, how much we missed the D.C. girls, and what we should order for dinner that night. We decided to unpack, take quick showers and order Thai food.

When we got to the apartment around 6:00pm, we went to our rooms and started unpacking our bags. “Still thinking Thai?” I yelled out to Lizzie.

“Yeah, def!” She responded.

“Ok, great. Let’s order soon. I want to go to sleep early.”

I was almost done unpacking when my phone vibrated with a text message. It was Sarah: “How’s your chest feeling?”

“I think I’m fine,” I typed out. “If I don’t feel better tomorrow, I’ll go to the doctor in the morning.” I went back to unpacking.

Just a few minutes after typing that message, Lizzie heard a huge gasp from my room. “Tini?” she called out. “Tini??”

She ran into my room and found me on the floor, unconscious, facedown.

Without hesitation, she grabbed the phone, dialed 9-1-1 and opened the front door. When the emergency operator responded she gave our address and explained what she saw. 

The operator told her to flip me face up and look for a pulse. When Lizzie turned me over, she was shocked to see that I had turned blue.

“She’s blue!” She told the operator.

“Can you find a pulse?”

Lizzie felt my neck and my wrists, “No. There’s no pulse!”

“Ok, you’re going to have to begin CPR,” the operator remained calm.

In an absolute act of fate, Lizzie had just been trained in CPR a few weeks earlier for a lifeguarding job she was taking that summer. So as terrified as she was in the moment, she knew exactly what she was doing.

With the operator still on the phone, she began chest compressions, holding the phone between her shoulder and her ear.

 Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-Stayin-Alive, as she pushed down on every beat of the tune she had learned in CPR training, she noticed the color coming back into my face.

“The blood is coming back into her face!” she said.

“You’re doing a great job, just keep pushing,” the operator encouraged.

Minutes later four EMTs, three firefighters and two policemen barged through our apartment door and took over. They began with a defibrillator to try and resuscitate me. My heart was shocked three times before it started beating again, yet I remained unconscious. I had gone into a coma. They proceeded to intubate me with a breathing tube to get air into my lungs, and took me on a stretcher out of our apartment. Lizzie rode in the ambulance with me.

While the medics had been working, Lizzie called her parents in a complete panic. They told her she had to make the tough call. She dialed my parents’ home number.

Meanwhile, my mom and dad were back in California enjoying a sunny day by the pool. My mom was sitting on a lounge chair, reading a New York Times article on how sugar effects your health, when the phone rang. She looked at the phone number and decided not to pick it up.

“Why don’t you answer?” my dad asked.

“I don’t recognize the number,” she kept reading her article. “It’s just a sales call.”

“Here, hand me the phone,” my dad motioned to my mom. “I’ll answer it.”

“Hi, Lizzie! How are you, honey?” my mom heard my dad say. Pause. “What happened?” He said seriously.

Immediately my mom knew something wasn’t right. My dad’s jovial tone had drastically changed into short, one word answers. As soon as he got off the phone she asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Cristina fainted, and she’s in the hospital.”

“Oh my gosh, is she okay? What happened? Did you talk to her?”

“They don’t know much yet. She passed out in the apartment, and Lizzie called 9-1-1. She’s in the hospital now being looked at, but I couldn’t talk to her. Lizzie is going to try to get a doctor on the phone so we can find out more. I think we have to go to New York.”

“I’m going to call my sister while you look for flights,” my mom was already dialing her cell. “She can go meet Cristina and Lizzie at the hospital.”

At this point my parents had no idea what exactly was going on or how bad it was, they thought I had simply passed out.

My dad found a flight for 11:30pm that night out of LAX. They’d decided he’d go to New York, and my mom would stay in California with my little sister.

Meanwhile my aunt, a lawyer, and Lizzie’s sister, a doctor, arrived at the hospital where Lizzie was waiting. They went straight to the doctors, determined to find out what was going on. Between the two of them, they got a much better sense of the situation. Lizzie’s sister asked all the right questions, while my aunt took detailed notes on everything. They learned that I went into cardiac arrest, that Lizzie did CPR before the EMTs arrived, and that I was currently in a coma. The doctors explained that they were going to transfer me to a sister hospital uptown to take me to the catheretization lab (the same scary cath lab from Chapter 4).

When my aunt called my parents to give them the updates, they began to realize that my condition was far worse than what they had originally thought. My dad called the airline to book two more tickets on his flight, and my mom and sister scrambled to pack their suitcases just before it was time to leave.

On the way to the airport my mom tried calling my cardiologist multiple times, but she wan’t able to get a hold of her. She left a voicemail explaining what happened, and asked for her to call back. Next, she called my other sister who was in school at Princeton. She got on the first train to the city.

In the meantime, they transferred me to the hospital uptown. My aunt rode with me in the ambulance, while Lizzie and her sister took a taxi. On the ride up my aunt called my other relatives, while Lizzie called Erica (whose shoulder I had been asleep on just hours before) and her boyfriend Jose (who went to med school with Lizzie’s sister). Within a few hours everybody was at the hospital.

When my ambulance arrived, they took me directly to the cath lab to look inside my arteries. They found that several arteries were blocked, and opened one of them with a balloon. I was still in a coma, so the next step was a hypothermia protocol. They lowered my core body temperature in the hope that if I came out of the coma, my brain would maintain most of its function. Cardiac arrest impairs oxygen flow to the brain, which can cause severe brain damage. Cooling down the body helps reduce inflammation of the brain tissue, and hopefully prevent further damage. I would remain in a hypothermic state for the next day or so.

My parents had no idea all of this was going on while they were in the air. As soon as they landed, my dad called the hospital to let them know they were on their way. My mom tried my cardiologist a few more times, but was never able to get a hold of her.

Around 9:00am Monday morning my parents arrived at the hospital. They hugged my relatives and friends that were already there and got a quick rundown of the situation. A few minutes later, the head of the CCU came to greet my parents. They were hoping he’d take them to me, but instead he said, “Before I take you to see your daughter we need to go into the conference room.”

He directed my parents, sisters, relatives and friends all into a very business-like meeting room where another doctor was waiting, the head of Ethics and End-of-Life Care for the hospital. They each took a seat around a long table, some holding hands, looking nervously around the room, terrified. They were hoping to get more information, reassurance, and good news.

Instead, without much explanation, the head of the CCU said, “I just want to tell you that the survival rate of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is 7.9%*. This hasn’t changed in thirty years. So if, and that’s a very big if, Cristina wakes up, and she’s in a vegetative state, the hospital will not keep her alive.”

xo Cristina