One November evening Diana and Paul Nickel played a spelling game and shared an ice cream birthday cake with their 6-year-old granddaughter Molly. The couple lived with Molly and her 8-year-old sister Kate while the girls’ parents were out of town.
Around 7:30 p.m., the girls started getting ready for bed. Paul was looking for a book to read to them when he heard a crash from the kitchen. He ran to find his 44-year-old wife collapsed on the floor.
Diana lay on her back and stared blankly into space with open eyes. She wasn’t breathing.
Paul had taken a CPR course 40 years ago and started doing chest compressions.
After a minute, he paused to call 911, then followed the dispatcher’s command to count aloud for her.
“You need to accelerate your pace,” she said. “Here, do it to me.”
Paul followed her direction and moved faster through the compressions.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ryan Jacobsen, the Johnson County, Kansas, EMS system medical director, left home after work. He usually turns off his beeper when he’s home. This time he didn’t. He checked the emergency alarm and saw the street – only a few blocks from his house. He went to help.
Paul had been doing CPR for seven minutes when the doctor took over.
“Diana, fight!” Paul pleaded. “Stay with us!”
Apart from the fact that Diana made gurgling noises, she no longer responded.
A minute later, more than a dozen emergency services arrived, including firefighters, police officers and rescue workers.
They put her on a stretcher and tried an automated CPR system to restart her heart. Paul was shocked by the power of the machine and squeezed his wife’s chest together.
A defibrillator was used to deliver a dose of electric shock to Diana’s heart. The shock may stop an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and resume a normal rhythm after a cardiac arrest. In this case it didn’t work. So they tried again. They tried a total of seven times with no apparent results.
After 40 minutes, Jacobsen decided it was time for the “Hail Mary” attempt, one last attempt at resuscitation. Since nothing else worked, he attempted the unusual maneuver of placing paddles on her chest and back in what is known as double sequential defibrillation. The American Heart Association does not recommend this procedure. The latest research shows that its usefulness has not been proven. More research is needed to determine clinical effectiveness.
It worked. The officers went to share the news with Paul, who had been encouraged to wait in another room.
“Your wife has regained consciousness and she is asking for you,” they said. “We are ready to transport you.”
Paul went to Diana to be put in the ambulance. He told her he loved her – and said goodbye for fear that she would not survive or be severely affected after 47 minutes without breathing.
At the hospital, Paul learned that she was still breathing and conscious.
People congratulated him on saving their life by starting CPR immediately.
“Of course that felt good on one level, but if you are in the moment you’re not sure you appreciate the gravity of the situation,” he said.
Diana had suffered cardiac arrest, an electrical malfunction of the heart. Doctors thought it likely she was taking bronchitis medication combined with nighttime cold medication – a perfect storm, basically.
Twelve days later, Diana left cardiac rehabilitation with no neurological damage, a wonderful result, the doctors said. As a precautionary measure in case the electricity in her heart fails again, Diana was given an implantable combination cardioverter defibrillator and pacemaker.
During cardiac rehabilitation, Diana learned to engage in exercise and better nutrition.
Both Diana and Paul were inspired to help others. They bought CPR manikins and automated external defibrillators – small devices that can put a heart into a normal rhythm – to donate to churches, schools, malls, and offices. Paul renewed his CPR skills and hopes to teach them again.
“We’ve heard so many stories about people who don’t know what to do, that’s why we wanted to help,” he said.
In September, Diana’s story took a frightening turn – an infection, but not COVID-19. A string of complications followed that eventually landed her in an emergency room in February.
Tests showed multiple blood clots in her lungs and both bacterial and fungal infections on the lead to her pacemaker. She underwent surgery to replace the pacemaker, but what the doctors found led to a far more invasive operation. She later underwent a different procedure for the new device.
“I’m healing well with three nice-sized scars on my chest,” she said. “I call the one in the middle my ‘turkey scar’ and the other two are just a blessing to know that we’ve now found what made me so sick and removed it and replaced it with an updated device.”
Her posture after the recent ordeal is similar to her posture after the trauma of her cardiac arrest: she is full of gratitude.
“I am so wonderfully happy that I am safe and sound,” she said. “Faith is a big part of it for me and the many people who have helped during and after death.”
Her faith was strengthened by something that happened during and after her cardiac arrest.
As Diana recovered, she kept remembering a man in jeans, sneakers, and a gray hoodie that covered his face.
“Everything will be fine,” he said to her. “Just stay calm and in peace.”
She later learned that a neighbor, Pastor Chad McDonald, was praying outside her house when the paramedics treated her and took her to the hospital.
When Diana was back on her feet, she and Paul personally thanked all first responders and the dispatcher.
Diana also tracked down McDonalds.
After introducing herself as the person he prayed for when she was treated and then taken to the hospital, she asked about his memories of that night. In particular, she wanted to know: “What did you wear?”
Jeans, sneakers and a gray hoodie, he replied.
He unloaded groceries and found that his wife was not breathing on the floor
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