Dying to Live

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The year is 2007. It is a cold January day, and I am unloading groceries from my car. My apartment is on the second floor, and after one trip upstairs, I am gasping for air. It is the day before my 37th birthday—it seems ludicrous to me that someone my age should be winded and exhausted by such a simple, everyday task.

How had I gotten here? I had spent most of my lifetime as a physically inactive person. I had been at least 30 pounds overweight for the better part of two decades, with occasional bouts of yo-yo dieting. I hit my heaviest weight in 2000 and then again in 2003 when I weighed 337 pounds.

I had a big life event in 2003—someone mistook me at a party for a fat, bald guy who was having his 50th birthday and I thought, “Holy crap! I’m 33 years old and if people think I look like this 50-year-old guy, I’m in trouble.” I successfully lost a lot of weight, but I didn’t exactly do it in a manner I’d recommend now. I drastically changed my eating habits—I basically ate nothing but salad—and I gave up the one liter of soda I’d been drinking every day. For the better part of three years, I kept most of the pounds off (my weight sometimes fluctuated by 10 pounds, but it stayed in that window). In this respect, I was healthier than I was at my heaviest because I weighed less…but I most certainly was not fit.

I still smoked. While I counted calories, I was not considering nutrition as part of my diet. There was absolutely no form of exercise in my life. After I made that disastrous trip up the stairs, I decided I was going to get healthy and take better care of myself.

For my 37th birthday, the cigarettes went into the garbage; I quit cold turkey after 20 years of smoking. I bought myself a pair of running shoes as a birthday present and started walking and jogging, making little loops in my apartment parking lot. After a couple of weeks, I was able to do two miles and I moved out onto the street. Four months later, I was doing my first 10K. This was where I belonged!

Exercise increased my awareness about what was going on with, and in, my body. It made focusing on better nutrition a lot easier. I realized that food was helping to fuel and repair my body. This changed my relationship with food and enabled me to make healthier choices. I found there is a distinct difference in eating for pleasure and eating with purpose. I was getting into the best shape of my life.

Imagine my surprise when I woke up in a hospital bed three months later with people hovering over me. How did I get here? Why were these people asking me such stupid questions (“Who is the president?”)? After answering questions—and asking a few of my own—found out that I had been in an induced coma for four days. Why? I’d had a heart attack and died. And was dead for 47 minutes.

My heart attack happened just as I was about to finish the Moonlight Margarita Run on August 2, 2007. I do not remember it at all—Versed has a way of doing that to you (Versed is the drug they induced the coma with, but it wipes days from your memory). An old piece of plaque in my arteries had broken loose, forming a blockage in my heart. My veins were cleaning themselves out, and unfortunately they got a little overzealous. This was merely a freak occurrence, something that nobody could have seen coming. I had looked and felt better than I had in years. I’d even had a doctor’s checkup a couple of months earlier.

I was very fortunate to be where I was when my heart attack happened. I’ve been told that a nurse who had just finished the race turned around and saw me go down. She ran over and immediately started to perform CPR on me. She and another fellow worked for 27 minutes until the medics could reach me. It took the medics another 20 minutes before they got a heartbeat. At that point, the medics rushed me to the hospital where doctors induced a coma and put me into a state of controlled hypothermia. This ‘ice’ treatment is a relatively new approach, and the main concern was what damage might have been done to my brain while I was without a heartbeat for 47 minutes. But I surprised everyone and came back 100 percent.

This near miss and my miraculous recovery gave me even more resolve to stay on a healthy path. You know the first question I asked the doctor? I asked him if I would be able to run again. I was glad to hear that I could – but I would have to wait a little while. The second day after I awoke from the coma, I was put into surgery for stints. That procedure went very well, and I was home soon afterward and back to work in my hair salon within two weeks. I was running (better than ever) after eight weeks.

The doctor told me that, had I not been in such good shape (and had such skilled CPR), they would never have been able to save me – nor would I have made such a good recovery. I’ve continued to seek better fitness and to run. I came to find that healthiness, much like happiness, is a choice. I’ve chosen to be healthy and happy, and I have never regretted it.

by Leah Fisher Nyfeler
from Lori Bush's point of view

Lori Bush, an Austinite, runner, and pediatric nurse, had completed the 2007 Moonlight Margarita Run and was waiting for a friend to finish. It was dusk; unable to see well in the twilight, Bush walked past the finish line, squinting at runners and cooling down from the hot run. About 200 yards from the finish, a runner on the other side of the street caught her eye as he fell. At first, she thought he’d tripped because he went down face-first, “a straight-out fall,” Bush said.

“Time passes slowly in an emergency,” Bush recounted. “I was waiting for him to get up, for people to notice he wasn’t moving. It dawned on me that nobody else was going to do anything.” At that point, Bush ran to the man’s side; he was on his face and on an uneven surface. She rolled the big man over and lay him flat, no easy feat for a petite woman of five feet and less than 100 pounds. She thought to herself, “[All] you’ve got [is]me, and it’s not your lucky day.” The man gasped, and Bush quickly ascertained there was no pulse. A trained nurse, she began cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Bush was concerned that, because of her size, she was not strong enough to effectively administer CPR to such a large person. At that time, CPR required both chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth breathing. She struggled over the decision to solely concentrate on giving effective chest compressions, afraid that her lack of strength was going to cost the runner his life.

Bush had some bystanders take a pack the man was wearing, hoping to identify him. Amy and Matt Bush (no relation to Lori Bush) were those people.

“We were just about to leave the event, less than a minute from walking back to the car, when a man collapsed across the street from where we were standing,” wrote Amy Bush in her online journal. “When he didn't get back up or even move, we all started yelling for medical help. … As I watched people checking for vitals, I realized it was Jason.”

Lori Bush continued CPR, but she was tiring. Another man asked to help, identifing himself as a physician. Bush never saw his face and never knew his name: “Knees just came right beside me, like the answer to a prayer,” she recalled, “and he started breathing [while I did chest compressions].” Then, they switched positions. They worked together; the total time elapsed since Bush had rushed to the runner’s side was 20 minutes. She was exhausted from the strenuous compressions, her knees scraped and bloody from kneeling on the ground. “That 20 minutes was an eternity,” she said. The lengthy response time was due to the crowded race course and limited visibility in the dark. When EMS arrived, Bush thought, “I’ve got to get out of here; I obviously failed to save this man’s life.” She found her friend and left.

Amy and Matt Bush stayed with their friend. “…[The Emergency Medical Technicians] had to revive him,” Amy Bush wrote. “…CPR, shock paddles, the whole scary affair, and it took them a while. You never want to hear people saying things like ‘he's not breathing’ or ‘I can't get a pulse.’ It was terrifying. But we kept our heads together and managed to use our extensive network of friends and relatives to get his mom's number. Once they got his heart going and stabilized him enough to move, we rushed to the ER to meet his family there.”

Four months later, Lori Bush still had no knowledge of what happened to Simmons. “I couldn’t let it go,” she said. “Everyone was saying he’d died, was revived in the ambulance, but lost again. I had to know.” She tried her medical connections, but it wasn’t until she was contacted by the American Heart Association (AHA) that she learned he had survived. She was invited to a yearly AHA dinner that reunites survivors of heart incidents with the volunteers who assisted them. When she picked up her nametag at the event, she learned Simmons’ name for the first time. “I knew I’d recognize him,” she recalled, but she didn’t see him there. His nametag remained unclaimed. She went to the volunteers: “I’m not sure Jason survived.”

From a glimpse of a card in Simmons’ pack or printing on a shirt, Bush knew that he’d been a member of the Austin Runners Club (ARC). She sent an email to the club: “I’m looking for Jason Simmons; can you just let me know he’s alive?” ARC assured Bush he was alive. More, they contacted Simmons. He immediately wrote to Bush, updating her on what had occurred after she left him. The two met for dinner with Simmons’ mother and grandmother. Simmons and his family were curious about the missing details. Bush completed the story for them. She revealed her emotions as she’d left the race: “I thought you were dead, and I was feeling a lot of guilt. How’d you get stuck with me? I wish I was bigger; I wish I was stronger.” She’ll never forget Simmons reply: “Obviously, your compressions were effective because it protected my brain.” Simmons had emerged from his coma with full brain health. He told her that it had been a last-minute decision to do the race. Originally, Simmons had planned a solitary training run on Cat Mountain. Bush believes fate put her there that night, watching for him at the finish.

Bush is still running, though she’s had three knee surgeries. She focuses on the half marathon now (her marathon days—she’s completed five—are behind her). Currently she works for a biotech company in Austin. Letters she received from Simmons are in her “forever” file, and she spoke of their ordeal as though it happened yesterday. Bush said that there was a life lesson for her that evening, which she referred to as “a moment of ordinary people.” The lesson? “Don’t be a ‘Watcher,’ be a ‘Do-er.’”
 

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