(Editor’s note: The writer of this letter tells us that the incident she describes occurred Jan. 2 in the Richmond School District.)

Dear Editor,

It’s 8.1 degrees outside (-3.2 with the wind chill), and you’re shoveling the sidewalk because you’re the janitor at the local middle school and you need to make sure the students and faculty can get in and out of the school safely.  Witnesses later say you collapsed face first into a snow pile, and no one moved you until the ambulance arrived 10 to 15 minutes later.  You were unresponsive and technically dead when the paramedics arrived, and they had to shock your heart 5 times to get it beating again.  You were transported to the local ER because you had a massive heart attack, then you were transported by life-flight to a hospital 35 miles away that’s known for its cardiac program.  Immediately after landing, you’re taken to the heart cath lab and a stint is put into one of your arteries that’s 95% blocked.  Then you begin therapeutic hypothermia because the likelihood of brain damage is probable due to the length of time your brain was without oxygen before the ambulance arrived.  Fortunately, you’ve been unconscious and on life support since you initially arrived at the ER so you aren’t aware of what’s happening, but your family must now watch and wait, wondering what condition you will be in IF you wake up.  Your therapeutic hypothermia consists of keeping your body temperature at 32 degrees Celsius for 24 hours, then slowly bringing your body temperature back up to normal over the next 18 hours.  Your body temperature was below 32 degrees Celsius when you arrived in the ER, so you’re already at the prescribed temperature.  Your severe shivering is controlled by drugs.  Your breathing is controlled by a machine, and you receive sustenance from the needle in your arm and the tube down your throat.  It’s a waiting game to see if you wake up, and if you wake up, how much brain damage you have, because the likelihood of you not having any brain damage is slim to none.

Miraculously, you wake up 5 days later like you just woke up from a very deep sleep.  Your family and doctors are all amazed that you don’t have any discernible brain damage.  They think that the extreme cold is what saved your brain.  Two weeks later you are looking at the possibility of being able to go home with physical therapy a few days a week.  Your condition is a miracle.

This is the story of my father-in-law, and our family is truly blessed.  There is one part of his story that I’d like to focus on, and that is the fact that no life saving measures were attempted from the time he collapsed until the time the ambulance arrived.  The school had an AED, but no one there knew how to use it.  It is shameful that the school had a lifesaving tool that nobody knew how to use.  What if this had happened on a day when it wasn’t so cold?  He wouldn’t have had the benefit of the frigid temperature to lessen the likelihood of brain damage; the only thing that could have saved him would have been the use of an AED.  What if this had been your father?  Your mother?  Your sister? What if this had been a student…what if this had been your child?

It’s a shame that the school had such a critical lifesaving tool that very few, if any, of the employees there knew how to use.  If you are a school administrator, I urge you to make sure your entire faculty-from janitor, to cafeteria worker, to principal-all know how to use the AED.  If your workplace has an AED and you don’t know how to use it, I urge you to seek training.  It’s the responsibility of each of us to know how to respond in an emergency situation and to know how to use the lifesaving tools available to us.  Take action now so you know how to take action in the future.

-Tina Payne


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