This Family Learned CPR to Save the Dad's Life—and Yours Should, Too

I never imagined that my athletic husband would have a near-fatal cardiac event in the middle of an ice hockey game. Now my son and I will be prepared if it happens again.

woman CPR hands illustration
Photo: Illustration by Sol Cotti

The text came at 11:30 p.m., when my husband, Martin, was at his recreational hockey game—the third that week. Sometimes he played two games in one night.

"I don't feel well. John's driving me to the hospital."

I reached him in the car, and he told me his arm hurt. Then I heard his teammate John calling Martin's name over and over—but my superfit husband didn't respond because he had gone into cardiac arrest.

Later, I learned that John, an E.R. nurse, had reacted immediately when he saw Martin drop to his hands and knees on the ice, struggling to catch his breath. John knew that he could beat the ambulance by at least five minutes if he drove Martin to the hospital himself. Every minute was going to count.

Martin stopped breathing in the car about two minutes from the E.R. Even though John couldn't perform proper CPR, he drove with one hand and pounded my husband's chest with the other to help keep blood flowing through his body. He had called ahead, so his colleagues were waiting in the ambulance bay with a gurney.

As my 12-year-old son and I raced to the hospital, I kept dialing John's cell phone, but he didn't pick up. He waited until the trauma team yelled, "We have a pulse!" before calling me back.

Once Martin was finally stable, I learned that the odds of surviving cardiac arrest outside a hospital were only around 10 percent, and that most survivors have some degree of brain injury. My 52-year-old husband was one of the lucky ones. He made a miraculous and full recovery, but our family dynamic shifted forever.

Perhaps the scariest part was that after dozens of tests, nobody could find a single thing wrong with him. He does not have heart disease. Doctors saw very little plaque in his arteries. He has no family history. No arrhythmia. No high blood pressure. He's never smoked. And he is lean and strong from all the sports he's played since age 4.

The cardiologist's best medical guess about what had happened? "He won the lottery—in reverse," he told us.

During the two-and-a-half weeks Martin was in the hospital, my son and I each silently wondered the same thing: If doctors couldn't explain why his heart had stopped, couldn't this happen again? And if it did, would we know what to do?

The answer was no. And that thought terrified me because we are a very active family: We kayak and ski at our lakefront cottage, miles from a hospital. Could we ever enjoy ourselves on our boat or while hiking? Could we travel anywhere that wasn't a ten-minute drive to the closest E.R.? I didn't think so.

Back home after Martin was discharged, I resurrected an old routine. When I was a new parent, I'd wake up in the middle of the night, sneak over to the crib, and strain to hear my infant breathe to make sure he was still alive. Now I was doing it with my husband.

CPR hands and hearts illustration
Illustration by Sol Cotti

A friend suggested that taking a course in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) could make my son and me feel less helpless, but I didn't have the energy to sit with a group of strangers all day. Then I read about Katrysha Gellis, a woman in our community who had gone into cardiac arrest at work several years earlier when she was only 30. Her colleagues had saved her life by calling 911 and performing CPR, and now Katrysha gave private CPR classes. Her story mirrored Martin's so closely that I knew she was meant to be our teacher.

A week later, Katrysha came to our home, where our friend Liliane and her son joined us for the class. Katrysha set up practice dummies, a laptop, and an automated external defibrillator (AED). My son hung back at first, and I wondered if the idea of learning how to shock a heart back to life was triggering memories of the hospital intensive care unit for him, as it was for me.

Katrysha recounted her story. Like Martin, she was only alive because someone else knew what to do. She promised us that in four hours, we'd know how to save someone's life too. "When someone is in cardiac arrest, you can't hurt them by performing CPR—you can only help them," she told us.

During the Heartsaver First Aid CPR AED course we learned about the Chain of Survival, in which every second counts. We were taught how to recognize cardiac arrest: First, check to see if the person is conscious by tapping them and making noise. Then see if the person is breathing (watch to see if their chest rises and falls, listen for breathing sounds, feel their breath on your cheek). If they are not conscious, call 911, and if they are not breathing, start CPR immediately and send someone to retrieve the nearest AED.

Katrysha demonstrated how to do chest compressions on an adult: Put one hand on top of the other, interlace your fingers, and place the heel of your hand in the center of the person's chest, in line with the armpits. She played the Bee Gees' hit "Stayin' Alive," which has the ideal 100 to 120 beats per minute rhythm required for hands-only CPR. The aptness of the song's title did not escape me as I applied enough force to push 2 inches deep into the mannequin's chest. I was surprised at how hard you have to push. I was even more surprised that my son and his friend easily had enough strength to do so.

We placed a plastic pocket mask with a one-way valve onto the dummy's mouth, which prevents direct contact during resuscitation, and practiced giving rescue breaths. Katrysha then showed us how to operate the AED, and the kids loved the way the machine talked them through each step. A built-in metronome provides the chest-compression rhythm, just in case you can't hear "Stayin' Alive" in your head.

When the class ended, I was euphoric. For the first time since my husband's release from the hospital, I wasn't terrified. Learning CPR was the most empowering thing we've ever done, and I believe every family should do it.

Calling 911, performing CPR immediately, and using an AED can triple a person's chance of survival, and yet the American Heart Association has found that nearly 90 percent of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests are fatal. The campaign CALL-PUSH-SHOCK, cosponsored by Parent Heart Watch and the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation, is working to increase survival rates by encouraging people to take action with CPR and an AED. While it's frightening to witness this kind of medical emergency, a 911 dispatcher can also walk you through the procedure over the phone while you're waiting for first responders to arrive.

I knew many parents who rushed to take an infant CPR course when their child was born so they could save them from choking. But we don't think about how valuable learning CPR can be for the entire family.

We received a training manual and a certification card, and we now own a portable AED. But taking the CPR course gave us much more than first aid training. It became a turning point in our family's healing journey: Finally, we were no longer powerless.

The ABCs of AEDs

When someone's heart stops beating and they are no longer breathing, each second is a crucial window for intervention. That's because most people will die within minutes if nothing is done. You've probably walked by small red or white boxes mounted on walls at your community center, shopping mall, or sporting arena hundreds of times without noticing them. Inside each of those glass cases is an automated external defibrillator (AED), a computerized medical device that analyzes the heart of someone in cardiac arrest. If the AED detects a dangerous abnormal heart rhythm, it can deliver a shock to restore a normal rhythm. The machines are designed so that anyone, even people who have never taken a CPR course, can operate them.

Audio and visual cues tell users exactly what to do, when, and for how long. Usually, you'll need to attach two sticky pads with sensors onto the chest of the person who is having the cardiac event. The sensors, or electrodes, transmit information about the heart's rhythm to the AED. The machine then tells you whether chest compressions or a shock to restart the person's heart is needed. Some machines deliver the shock without your having to push a button. Acting quickly is essential to restore oxygen flow to the brain: Someone who's gone into cardiac arrest has a 60 percent survival rate if they receive an AED shock within three to four minutes.

People practicing CPR
Illustration by Sol Cotti

Kids Can Learn CPR

More than 356,000 cardiac arrests occur outside a hospital in the U.S. each year, and it can be hard to imagine that happening to a grandparent, baseball coach, or babysitter—possibly in front of your child. Learning lifesaving skills at an early age is both possible and worthwhile.

"If they're strong enough, kids as young as 8 or 9 can easily do chest compressions and become CPR certified," says Corey Abraham, director of instructor development at HSI, in Eugene, Oregon. "At that age, they should be able to understand and retain the information for recall when and if they need it in an emergency." Most mannequins used in CPR classes make a clicking sound when students practice chest compressions to show they're pushing hard enough and fast enough. "Kids younger than 8 can learn how to recognize an emergency and call 911."

Many local and national organizations offer hands-on CPR training, including the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association. Make sure the person leading the course is a certified CPR instructor. The cost varies depending on where you live. "In Eugene, you might pay $70, and in New York City, the same course could cost $110," Abraham says. When kids are in a class, instructors usually incorporate additional breaks, give out prizes to make it more engaging, and play songs like "Baby Shark" to demonstrate the correct compression rhythm. "I would encourage everyone to take a class, even if you have kids under age 8, because it'll help them recognize an emergency," Abraham says. "If that's the only thing they learn, the course was worth it."

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's January/February 2022 issue as "My Family Learned CPR (and Yours Should Too)." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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