Ready to Save a Life?

Last Thursday, my best friend, Dena, posted the following message on Facebook:  “Had a surprise visit today at work from someone who I knew for less than 30 minutes, and haven’t seen in 7 years. We shared a moment today that reminded me how simple acts of kindness make the world a better place. Needed to share that reminder… it is such an important one!”   

Dena is not someone who often posts Facebook messages.

I thought that the comment was loaded with intrigue and a great take-away message.  Not wanting to push her to share the underlying story publicly, I simply clicked the Facebook “Like” button and moved on with the blizzard of activity that blurred my day.

Today, in the middle of catching up with Dena about life, I burped, “what was the story with that Facebook post last week?”  With enthusiasm that is characteristic of everything that this mother of three, wife and pediatrician does, her face exploded with a smile that is the same as when she was 13 years old and she buzzed, “you won’t believe this,” and handed me a tiny envelope – the kind that is often taped to a floral arrangement.  Written by a young woman’s hand were the words:  “Dena, Without you, I would never have been given this opportunity.  A million thanks could, still, never be enough.”  (It was the kind of message that tickles your heart and causes surprise tears to fill your eyes, even without understanding the story.)

Instead of signing the note “from” or “sincerely” or even “love,” the handwritten message concluded with a simple, scribbled heart and the author’s name.  A second, small piece of smooth, glossy paper was folded with the note.  Before my fingers massaged the single fold apart, I knew what the unique paper represented.  I carry two nearly-identical pieces of paper in my wallet; one for each of my children.  The small square revealed a black and white image, familiar only to those who have had an ultrasound evaluation of their pregnancy.  Most parents treat the strip of four or five “photos” that they are given like gold, dividing them only among spouses, partners, and future grandparents. 

Reading the note and smiling at the image did not clarify the chance meeting that Dena had or its apparent value.  Feeling a little like a reporter, I pushed.  There is not much that I do not know about Dena – the beauty of those few friends who are like siblings – but, I needed help connecting the dots. 

Seven years ago on September 16, Dena was at home trying to get some rest while completing her residency in pediatrics.  The nighttime quiet of Dena’s then small-town neighborhood was shattered along with metal, plastic and glass of the car that crashed into Dena’s house.  As someone trained to triage in tragedy and save lives, Dena did just that.  Though an investigation would ultimately reveal that older boys were driving under the influence of alcohol, all that mattered that night was that Dena found an unresponsive teenage girl who had been ejected from the single-car accident.

The girl, maybe 16 years old, was dead by layman standards.  She was in cardiac arrest and had no pulse.  She was in respiratory arrest and was not breathing.  If not for Dena’s instinct and training that demanded her hands begin CPR chest compressions, that girl would not have lived long enough for the emergency assistance of a helicopter crew and hospital-based healthcare providers to sustain her life and, in no uncertain terms, give that girl a second chance.

But, that’s exactly what Dena did.  She pushed the girl’s sternum, hoping that the pressure of the chest bone would exert corresponding pressure on the girl’s heart.  And if lucky, the energy from Dena’s hands would translate into the energy required for the left ventricle to force open the aortic valve and push the oxygenated fluid of life through the girl’s lifeless body.  Blood, under the power of Dena’s hands, flowed to the girl’s brain.

Today, looking back on that night, Dr. Dena stands far from her heroic and life-saving acts and says that it was likely that the girl, whose teeth were knocked out in the DUI- and speed-caused “accident,” had something – blood or a tooth – blocking her airway, and that the obstruction caused her breathing to cease and heart to stop beating.

I do not think that the physiology lessons contained in bringing life back from death are critical in this story.  The basics, however, are.  The girl was so severely injured that survival can only be attributed to a miracle, including that the accident took place on a doctor’s front lawn.  Life was sustained because someone knew what to do.  A funeral was avoided because CPR was taught and learned.

To underscore the significance of what happened on September 16, 2003, the rest of the story should be told.  The girl recovered from her injuries.  A year later, she returned to the scene of the accident and left flowers and a note of appreciation for Dena.  The new owner of Dena’s house telephoned our doctor hero, and told her about the flowers.  Every year since then, unbeknownst to Dena, the girl returned to the house and left flowers.  This year, however, the not-so-new owner of Dena’s old house was home to intercept the annual, mysterious visitor.  She updated the now-23 or 24-year-old woman that Dena had moved.

Motivated by an understanding that today her lungs fill with oxygen and her heart beats to sustain life because of Dena’s fast-acting response, the young woman tracked down Dena at her pediatric practice, flowers and note in hand.  Dena’s office receptionist reported that a “special visitor” was in the waiting room.  The exchange was everything that you would imagine:  A girl, who is now a grown woman, tracks down the young medical resident, who is now a veteran pediatrician, explains who she is and that she is there last Thursday because Dena was there – really there – seven years ago.  She shares the ultrasound picture and the message, softly reminding Dena that the dead girl of seven years ago would not today be a very alive, pregnant woman if not for the acts of a stranger.  Many lives would have been so different if Dena did not know what to do.

On Facebook, Dena tried to remind us that simple acts of kindness matter.  I think she meant that she was touched by the girl delivering the most important thank you in the form of flowers and news of her pregnancy.  I agree that kindness matters, especially that of strangers.  But, the real take away here is that Cardio-Pulmonary-Resuscitation (CPR) saved a life.

If a car crashed in front of your house tonight, could you do something meaningful after dialing 9-1-1?  Could you properly compress the chest?  Do you know the depth of the compression necessary to sustain life?  (It’s a much harder push that you would think.)  Do you know the 30-2 rhythm of compressions and breaths?  Do you know the protocol if you’re alone versus with others who can assist in the life-saving mission?

In most communities, the American Red Cross (www.redcross.org) and the American Heart Association (www.heart.org), among others, teach classes in CPR, first aid, and the use of Automatic External Defibrillators (think of the TV scene where the doctor yells, “Clear!” before delivering an electrical shock).  Isn’t it time you take a few hours out of your weekend and get certified (or recertified)?

Sadly, there are moments every day that require us to rise to the occasion and save a life (a car accident that happens in front of you on a highway; a woman who chokes in a restaurant; a man who falls to the grocery store floor, clutching his chest while having a heart attack; and a child who falls breathless in front of you on a playground, to name just a few).  Join the movement to be prepared to help.  Remember the words on the note:  “Without you, I would never have been given this opportunity.”  Without YOU….  Hey, I’m counting on you, just like you’re hoping that you can count on me.

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4 Responses to Ready to Save a Life?

  1. Genevieve Lattimer says:

    Not fair making me cry!

    That was really an inspiring post. Thanks!!

    • Thanks, Genevieve, for being so supportive. I don’t know if the post was inspiring but holding that ultrasound picture made me recommit to being ready when someone needs my help (not just in the form of CPR). I really hope that through sharing here that the people that have touched my life can help us all do a better job of living our own lives. Thanks so much for being part of the conversation!

  2. Scott Drobnis says:

    Benjamin, that was truly a touching story. You tell it so well! As someone who has been trained to react in an emergency for more than 20 years, I can well appreciate Dena’s reactions and the life that she saved. I have had several people come up to me, introduce themselves as “you saved my life” and offer a simple thank you, but never had one present a sonogram. This really is a great story. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. carol albert says:

    i remember when this event took place and you shared it with us. dena is very special but i know that you are special too and a wonderful friend, son, husband and DAD. love mom

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