Read Kennedy’s previous post for the first installment of her story.
January 23rd. Some recognize this date as the day Richard Nixon announced an accord to end the Vietnam War, or the day LeBron James became the 7th and youngest player to reach the 30,000 NBA point milestone. With those moments forever etched in history, this day holds a value that I’m forever indebted to. For me, January 23rd, 2013 is the day that I flew to Heaven with gossamer wings.
Only seventeen, following the trendiness of society in a puzzling quest of fitting in (as most dramatic teenagers do). Getting over the convenience of crying and why it caters to the young and wondering, while anxiously solving the case of my life’s unknown purpose. I walked into school that Wednesday morning completely unprepared for the way destiny would manifest itself around me with the sweetness of its burnt out black feathers.
Bigger, Faster, Stronger was a class that helped improve all aspects of my athletic performance as a high school softball player. From strength, speed, agility, and flexibility training, breaking records in the weight-room became my weekly goal. I strived to be more explosive not only in my workouts, but on the pitchers’ mound. I approached the pull-up bar completely full of adrenalin as if I was cavorting into the prelude of a dream. Trying to reach my repetition goal, I began the cadence of pulling my chest up to the bar and extending my arms back down. Inhale, exhale. Reaching my third rep, something wasn’t right. I had to quit despite how hard I wanted to push my strength. Grip so firm, my knuckles had lost their human color and the single vein in my forehead appeared like a quiet captivating abandon. Stop, Kennedy, stop. Once my feet planted the floor, it was as if someone had a carafe with nine ounces of static, generously poured into the sinus node of my heart. Collapsing to the ground, I immediately was in cardiac arrest.
Expecting to find minimal injury, my teachers rushed to my side and instead, found me unconscious, unresponsive, and in my most vulnerable moment. Chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was immediately administered as a classmate dialed 911 with frantic fingers. Although stunned at what had happened, my rescuers knew that if I were to survive, paramedics needed to get here and get here quickly. For fifteen minutes my pulse had vanished. I knew it was going to leave me someday but would’ve never imagined it would possess the qualities of evanescence as a young teenager. What felt like an eternity was only minutes, faculty yielded care to firefighters, emt’s and paramedics. After assessing my cardiac rhythm, I was in ventricular fibrillation (rapid, erratic, electrical impulses) requiring me to be shocked a total of three times. Because of the skill and rapid response, my pulse was recovered. Yet unable to breathe on my own, I was rushed to the hospital and put on life support.
About 90 percent of people who experience severe out-of-hospital cardiac arrests die, so the chances of recovery were now lifted in roars of constant prayer. My dad and grandmother did not deserve to be in that hospital waiting room again. My grandma now having lost both of her children, my dad losing his wife, and now here they are in fear of losing their daughter and granddaughter to this masked shadow. Why was death trying to pluck our loved ones like petals from a flower-it loves them, it loves them not.
Carrying the news for anxious ears, the doctor informed my family that I was showing signs of slow recovery. “We are amazed but cautiously optimistic.” It was a miracle I had survived, but because I flat-lined for fifteen minutes, one of the biggest concerns was the impact of prolonged oxygen deprivation on my brain. With cardiac arrest, the lack of circulation affects not just one part of the brain but everywhere in the brain where blood flows. When cardiac arrest occurs, it is essential to start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) within two minutes. By nine minutes, severe and irreversible brain damage is likely and chances of survival are low. If my teachers hadn’t of administered CPR as quickly and consistently as they did, I wouldn’t be alive. CPR literally saved my life that Wednesday morning, but what trauma would be waiting for me?
I was transferred to University Medical Center where different brain tests were performed and miracles began to happen. Results revealed no signs of permeant brain damage which left the medical team astounded. To be deprived of oxygen that long without the extra assistance of an Automated External Defibrillator and be completely free of cascading symptoms is proof that I was under the care of no human hand. My eyes opened and I found myself laying in a hospital bed connected to tubes and wires like a marionette puppet. I had no recollection of what happened but as I was listening to the story, it sure felt like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The question I remember asking myself was “but… why did this even happen?”
Imagine forcing yourself to be content with the reality of never knowing why your mom died. Or my grandmother looking at “anomaly” on her seventeen year old son’s autopsy report knowing deep in the fibers of her soul that there had to be more to that declaration. From being prescribed heart rate stabilizer pills to being hooked up to the glittering menagerie of frequent electrocardiogram tests, it seemed like a nuisance for two little girls who felt like the unfairness of life had just slapped them in the face. I can’t speak for my sister but I know that my tears found refuge in the palms of my hands.
With my grandmother’s persistent research with the SADS Foundation, we knew it had to be within the genetic composition of our family tree. Connecting with the Mayo Clinic, our family’s heritable cardiovascular disease specialist realized that the electrical heart conditions I had been tested for twelve years prior, were mimickers of one uncommon needle in a haystack. I was with my grandmother at a SADS conference in Ohio when our specialist Dr. Ackerman told us the results of his research. He looked at my grandmother, looked at me, and says “Pam, Kennedy, we found it.” From implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) surgery to scrutinizing DNA samples, catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT) was our smoking gun. The day my heart freed Excalibur.
This rare genetic condition often shows up in childhood with first sightings of fainting, heavy exercise or strong emotion. The two upper chambers of the heart are called atria and the two lower chambers are called ventricles. Normally, the signal to start your heartbeat comes from a group of specialized cells in the heart called the sinoatrial node. People with CPVT can develop a sudden, irregular and rapid heart rhythm from the ventricles called ventricular tachycardia (VT). With this condition, the heart beats so quickly that it does not have enough time to fill between beats. As a result, not enough blood gets pumped forward to the body.
It took me some time to truly comprehend this big anatomical orchestra, but it’s through the music that I’ve learned what it truly means to be a cardiac arrest survivor and I wouldn’t change it for the world. There was a season where I felt like I was trapped in winter. Through that winter I learned the nature of patience and with that patience, the harvest will be rich in the end and darkness will dissipate. With the promise whispered in my ear that my destiny on earth wasn’t finished yet, my heartstrings became the feathers on His golden quill.
Amazing things happen when we are liberated from our own fear. As we let our light shine from that freedom, we unconsciously invest in giving people permission to do the same. Never give up. You never know what beauty can be found in our darkest moments.