Sudden Cardiac Arrest Survivor…


“Tracey, you have to go help. You know what to do!”

Hearing my friend’s urgent statement and feeling her shove on my shoulder, my first impulse was to whirl around denying, “Not me! I’m no expert.” But I was already out of my chair making my way through the patio tables and gawking patrons. A woman was leaning in distress over her slumped and unresponsive elderly companion. Another concerned diner was holding the birdlike lady in a bear hug from behind, his arms locked below her ribcage, delivering his best version of the Heimlich maneuver.

“Has someone called 911?” was my emphatic entry into the fracas. I touched the frightened younger woman’s arm. “Yes!” she cried. “They’re coming.” She grabbed the hand of the unconscious woman, slack in the Good Samaritan’s embrace. “Mother? Mom!!” she cried, desperately.

Fleetingly, I thought, Maybe this fellow confidently thrusting his fist into the senior woman’s abdomen has more knowledge than me and I shouldn’t interfere? But the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Survivor part of me overruled and I stepped forward firmly stating, “I think we should start CPR.” The man gently lowered her to the cement patio. I cradled her silver-haired head in my hands, marveling at how heavy it was in my palm despite her petite frame. Her daughter, a woman close to my age began to feebly push on her mother’s chest.

Being a Virgo, I try not to impose my critical judgments when they aren’t truly helpful. This time it was genuinely ‘life or death.’ Resting my hand over hers, I urged, “Why don’t you give your mother breaths? I’ll do compressions?” Her brimming eyes met mine for a second and she nodded. Settling onto my knees I bent over the still body and took my own deep breath. Feeling through her blouse to locate the base of her breastbone, I laced my fingers together, hand on top of hand, and placed the heel of my palm squarely in the middle of her fragile chest. I pushed down. Hard. At least two inches into the mildly resisting flesh. Immediately, I retracted, lifting my shoulders. Plunging again deeply, I felt – not heard – a crackle. Wincing, I kept going. My brain assured me it was likely cartilage, not breaking ribs, but I heard myself repeating what I tell my audiences when I coach them through the basics of CPR, “If you break a rib, that’s okay. For all you know they are dead, you aren’t making it worse. If they sit up and yell, OW! that’s a good thing.” She didn’t sit up.

I pumped away, striving for a consistent one hundred pushes per minute, doing my best to hear pop star Barry Gibb wailing in my head. Less than twenty-four hours before, I’d demonstrated CPR to the attendees of Good Samaritan Hospital of San Jose’s Trust Your Heart Conference. A key element of the story is to use the disco beat of the Bee Gees 1970’s anthem “Stayin’ Alive!” to help gauge the pace of chest compressions. I was aware that my knees were screaming at me from the gravelly texture of the concrete, grinding into my bony patellae. Also, that I was getting a bit winded myself from the exertion. But one glance at the woman who could have been my sister, trembling as she placed her mouth over her mother’s was an adrenaline shot to my system, and I plunged away.

It couldn’t have been more than two minutes when the blaring siren competing with Barry Gibb abruptly stopped. Still in the groove of “Push Hard, Push Fast!” I became aware of the bustle of people making room for the first responders, an EMS team. Peripherally glimpsing a navy blue uniform by my side, I retracted my final plunge and slid away, allowing the real expert to take over.

Seeing that the first responders were handling both the care of the unresponsive woman and her frantic daughter, I recognized my part in the Chain Of Survival was complete. I melted into the background, waiting to see if they needed any additional information from what I’d observed and the actions we took. Feeling a bit shaky and realizing my own heart was beating much faster than normal, I accepted a glass of water from a kind waiter who had watched the scene unfold. “Wow,” he said, in a hushed tone. “You really knew what you were doing. It’s a good thing.” Between grateful gulps, I told him I’d been through training a few times but this was the first time I’d ever used my CPR skills on a real person. Thanking him for the water, I made my way back to my friends.

I smiled, having resisted telling the waiter I was just “Pushing It Forward.” It would have taken too long to explain that fifteen years earlier, I was the one who had collapsed unconscious on the ground and was receiving the life saving “Push Hard, Push Fast!” plunges from a young man who witnessed my Sudden Cardiac Arrest. In the years since my resuscitation, I have become something of a lay expert in all things Cardiac Arrest related.

Take it from me: If you encounter an unconscious person don’t be shy, be pushy. Please! Push It Forward:

  • ~ Check for “normal” breathing. Firmly shake their shoulder and ask them, “Are you okay?” Gagging/Gasping for air is NOT normal breathing. If no response, and breathing is “‘weird’” or has stopped

  • ~ Call 911. If you are alone, give 911 the vital information before starting CPR. If you have additional help, have them call 911 while you,

  • ~ Begin Hands-Only CPR. Place victim on their back on a flat, firm surface – NOT a bed.

  • ~ Push Hard! Push Fast! Kneel close to victim’s chest, position your hand over hand, push deep – 2 inches – into the middle of their chest on breastbone. Be sure to lift up the full 2 inches after every push. Repeat 100 times per minute. Think of a disco song to maintain the beat/pace. Keep pushing/retracting until help arrives or the person regains consciousness.

The day I finally got my chance to “Pay,” or more accurately, “PUSH It Forward,” I was traveling out of state. I never learned whether the woman who collapsed survived. I fervently hope she did. Even if our bystander group only helped resuscitate her long enough to give her family time for a more peaceful farewell, I am thrilled and grateful to have played my small part. It was a huge gift to me in a number of ways.

First, and foremost, I was part of a passionate effort to save a fellow human being. Second, I got that opportunity to “Push It Forward,” in appreciation of the people who gave me my second chance at life. Third, and in many ways the most surprising to me, it taught me even if I doubt I’m the most expert person in the room, I have skills and leadership and my participation is important.

When I’m procrastinating or feeling that I’m not capable or experienced enough, I think back to that day and feel a hand shoving my shoulder and I hear those words, “Tracey, you have to go help. You know what to do.” Suddenly, I’m out of my chair and moving forward into action.

TRACEY CONWAY is an Emmy award-winning actress, “Oprah” guest, and Huffington Post blogger, who inspires both belly laughs and tears on platforms across America as she relates the true story of her own sudden-death cardiac arrest at the age of 38.