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The 9-1-1 operator counted me through chest compressions.
“1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.″
My memory of that night is as if I was floating above us. My hands on his chest. Kneeling on the floor in my underwear and a T-shirt. My pale legs. His face.
“Run down and unlock the door and come back,” she said. I did. I came back up. I kept going.
“1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.”
The next day the nurse said I did CPR for 14 minutes. I would have said it was five minutes if you asked me.
Rick is my whole heart. Our love story is magic. A series of parallel, impossible coincidences led us to find each other. This destined, urgent, all-consuming love was so beautiful and precious and rare, there was nothing to do but be together forever.
He is my heart. And his stopped beating.
The firefighters came first. The paramedics soon after. In a record-breaking snowstorm.
I didn’t look at them when they arrived. All I remember is yelling out, “Should I keep going?” I did for another minute while they cleared out the room to make space to defibrillate.
Then they cleared me out as well. For which I am now exceedingly grateful, because every image of every moment of that night is burned in my brain, I assume for life.
When I first woke up, he was facing away from me. It sounded like he was having a bit of sleep apnea. So I rocked him back and forth, like I usually do, but then he started gasping for breath.
His face was red, eyes bulging, his whole body seizing as I came around to his side of the bed.
“Rick, Rick, Rick, can you hear me? Can you breathe? I’m calling 9-1-1,” I wailed.
I dialled from the phone at his bedside. His body went limp. His face started to turn blue.
“You have to get him on the ground,” the operator directed, but he was so heavy I couldn’t move him.
“I can’t move him.”
“You have to.”
I grabbed him by his underwear and managed to slide him sideways off the bed, then started compressions.
During his 9 day-stay at the hospital, many doctors and nurses would comment that it was very good CPR. I just did what the 9-1-1 operator told me to do and somehow seemed to retain something from my CPR training in high school. I can only presume I had angels on my shoulders.
(Note to everyone reading this, refresh your CPR training.)
When they defibrillated him, I watched his feet through the doorway from the hall.
“Is his heart beating?” I asked.
A few inches of snow had fallen in the hours since we had gone to sleep. The world was quiet apart from the piercing sirens.
I followed the ambulance in my car slowly and carefully, terrified I might slide on the unplowed road and not be with him.
“He’s going to be okay,” I said to my parents on the phone, trying to convince myself. “He has to be.”
The state of shock I was in, and my general lack of knowledge about cardiac arrests allowed me to believe that this was true.
Weeks later I finally had the courage to Google the statistics. Only about 10 per cent of people who suffer from cardiac arrest survive, and the rate is even lower for in-home cardiac arrests.
As we both recover from the trauma of it all, that statistic stops me in my tracks every time I think of it. What if I couldn’t get him off the bed and do good CPR? What if the ambulance took longer to get there? What if he didn’t receive such incredible care?
The answer is unthinkable.
Later we would learn that Royal Jubilee Hospital, the hospital closest to our house, is a national leader and pioneer in cardiac care. This a piece of information I had probably come across many times before, but never internalized. I never knew it would one day be a pivotal part of our lives.
So many parts of Canada’s health care system are under extreme stress, but the care my husband received was nothing short of incredible. From the 9-1-1 dispatcher to the firefighters and paramedics, the doctors and nurses, the food service, janitorial and administrative staff. Every person was exceptional at their job and their part in saving his life, and I will be grateful for them for the rest of mine.
A week of tests and investigation revealed his cardiac arrest had no clear cause. He is young (43) and physically in great health. It is rare, but sometimes the heart just stops. Electrical problems are what they call it in the cardiac care unit. To protect him, should this ever happen again, he now has an internal defibrillator that is like a pacemaker but stays on standby.
His story feels like a miracle. And it is. But it is a miracle that isn’t possible without the world-class medical care he received in a system that is the best of all the good things Canada has. It is the foundation of our shared compassion and care for one another, and it saves our lives.
A month later, the pain from the CPR and surgery has subsided. Rick is well on his way to a full recovery in every way and will be back at work in short order.
Sometimes I stare at him in disbelief. How did this all happen, there he is, looking just the same as he ever did. Full of energy and life, laughing at his own jokes.
We are so grateful for the care he continues to receive, for our incredibly supportive friends and family, for our sweet dog, Lucy, who is doing her best to keep our lives filled with simple joy. And for every moment together.
Because life is precious, and as Rick and I learned one snowy night in late December, none of us ever know how many moments we have left.
Danielle Dalzell lives in Victoria.