When I walked into the bedroom, I could see he was unconscious.
My husband of 38 years was in cardiac arrest.
Chris was 63 and still had so much in him. He was working full-time and was in good health. He had no history of heart disease. This shouldn’t be happening.
After a few seconds of panic, I gathered myself.
‘This is not about me, this is not about my terror, it’s about Chris and what he needs now.’
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This thought jolted me into action.
I remembered a Facebook post I’d read that very morning, written by a nurse, who said if a major medical emergency happens in the home, call 999. Don’t call your neighbour, don’t call a friend, call 999.
The operator on the 999 call was clear and calm.
‘Go downstairs and open the door so the first responders can get in. Get Chris off the bed and onto the floor, a hard surface, begin chest compressions. I will tell you how to do them.’
As I tried to get Chris off the bed, he fell on me. A moment of absurdity. What dark comedy had I been cast in? It pains me to say it, but for a split second I laughed. We were going on holiday to Spain in two days. I had got up early to finish off some work. And now Chris is dying.
The 999-operator kept me on track. He was on speaker on Chris’s bedside table. And despite my clumsy attempt to shift him from the bed, in that moment I found a super human strength. I got Chris into the narrow nook between the bed and the wall and began pressing on his chest.
I leant over him from atop of his head and just began pushing. I knew I wasn’t in the ‘correct’ position to do chest compressions but there was no room to kneel beside him. All that mattered was that my hands, clasped together, kept pushing into the middle of his chest.
I had learnt CPR when I was 12, in 1969, during a Bronze life-saving course. Needless to say, I didn’t recall much. But the man on the other end of the 999 call helped me find a good rhythm and told me to just keep going.
I’ve since been told that these early compressions were enough to keep the blood flowing to and from Chris’s heart and to his brain.
As I did CPR, the 999-operator arranged for the local fire service to bring a defibrillator. They were there in a matter of minutes. I remember hearing the sirens – it was the most reassuring sound I’d ever heard.
The three firemen rushed in with their medical gear and defib and took over. I stepped outside the bedroom and into the hallway. I felt relief but knew Chris was nowhere near out of the woods. He looked awful.
The firemen delivered a few shocks from the defibrillator. I recall feeling such trust in them, and unbelievable gratitude that they were there, doing everything in their power to bring my husband back.
They worked on Chris for about 20 minutes, when the ambulance arrived with paramedics – who had more advanced medical equipment and greater training.
Another 20 or so minutes go by. More defib shocks pound into my husband’s chest.
The Great Western Air Ambulance had been alerted and was on its way. Soon, I could hear the helicopter landing at the local school near the end of our street in Cheltenham.
The air ambulance doctor and paramedic rushed in and assessed Chris. They began trying to bring his heart back into beat. Later, I learnt that one of the reasons why the air ambulance came was because I’d started CPR within minutes and a defib was used quickly. Because of this, Chris was deemed saveable.
I’m told that the air ambulance workers kept using the defib because they could detect the faintest of electrical activity in Chris’s heart. This gave them some medical hope to keep trying.
Almost an hour had gone by. I was downstairs in the kitchen, listening to – and admiring beyond belief – the professionalism and dedication of the medical responders. I can’t say if I was in shock, though I recall being oddly calm – as if I could sense that Chris had not yet left us. That he was still in that room.
So when air ambulance doctor came down to me and explained, in the most honest and human way, that it wasn’t looking good, and that they’d tried almost everything to revive Chris – I couldn’t accept it.
I grabbed a photograph off the fridge and showed it to the doctor.
‘This is the man you’re trying to save,’ I said.
It was a blurry photo of Chris from a walk we’d gone on years earlier with our daughter. I wanted the doctor to see Chris as happy and full of life –not as the desperately ill man upstairs. He was a healthy 63-year-old who loved life as much as he was loved by all those around him. I knew Chris would be fighting to live.
I knew the medical team were doing everything they could but I needed to humanise Chris. I needed to advocate for him as strongly as I could. It may have been my last chance.
The doctor went back upstairs to re-join the others. I remained in the kitchen, clutching the photograph.
Ten minutes later, after the 12th shock from the defibrillator, Chris’s heart began to beat.
He’d been ‘dead’ for 68 minutes.
I allowed myself a moment to breathe. He had a chance. But I was told that his heartbeat was so faint, so weak, that if it stopped again as they moved him from the bedroom into the ambulance then that would be it.
The fire service and paramedics took extreme care to stretcher Chris from the bedroom, down the stairs, out of the house and into the ambulance.
From there, he was driven 200 metres to the air ambulance over on the school’s playing field. As soon it took off I knew he was still alive; they wouldn’t have taken flight if Chris’s heart had stopped on the short trip to the helicopter. I’ll never forget the sight of the air ambulance ascending above the trees at the end our street as it began its trip to the Royal Bristol Infirmary. He’s got a chance, I thought.
Chris has since made a full recovery. But it’s still a mystery what brought on the cardiac arrest. Doctors have tested him for all sorts of heart conditions; without any answers. He’s had a defibrillator fitted into his chest, which gives us both peace of mind. And we did get to Spain for that holiday, even if it was a year late.
I know now that if I hadn’t started CPR so quickly then Chris would most definitely not be here today. This week, on Restart a Heart Day, I’m reminded of this more than ever. I’m also aware that in the UK, nine out of 10 people who have an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest don’t survive.
Finally, last week I was honoured to attend the British Heart Foundation’s inaugural Heart Hero awards. I received a CPR Hero award along with 33 others in an emotional presentation. We were all acknowledged for jumping in and trying CPR. My husband is living proof that it’s worth a try.
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