My Dad is a Zombie, My Mom is a Necromancer
My Dad, Jack Bowers of Salmon Arm, BC, Canada, is a fairly well known local man. On June 20th, 2014 at around 12pm, he came home to get a bite of lunch and then laid down on the couch to watch the news. Within minutes he turned purple and started grunting and gasping. My Mom, who only happened to be home due to job action at her job as an elementary school secretary, heard him stop breathing and could not get a response from him. She immediately called 911.
A cardiac arrest is not a heart attack
My Dad had gone into sudden cardiac arrest, meaning his heart had stopped beating. You know, that ever-present pulsing you feel when you hold your fingers to your wrist or neck. That pounding feeling when you have a headache. That stopped. His heart stopped. Blood stopped flowing. Oxygen stopped flowing.
I have never really thought much about what a cardiac arrest was, and one of my first thoughts was, “How bad was it?” As if cardiac arrests had degrees of severity. I misunderstood the distinction between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack. When I discuss the event with people, many relate it to an experience they’ve had with someone who has recovered from a heart attack. A heart attack can have degrees of severity. You can have a mild heart attack. You can have a massive heart attack. Sometimes they even cause cardiac arrest. But you can’t really have a mild or massive cardiac arrest. Your heart just goes from beating to not beating. Tick… tick… tick… … … … nothing.
You can’t survive cardiac arrest on your own
When your heart stops beating, you become unconscious. You and your body are no longer capable of keeping yourself alive. Without intervention, you are dead.
If Mom had been at work that day instead of at home, Dad would have died right then and there. If Dad had been out for a walk, or Mom was in another room, he would have died right then and there. But, my Mom heard my Dad’s strange noises and saw him turn purple. She yelled at him and he did not respond. She did exactly what she was supposed to do and called 911. She had never done CPR and had never done CPR training.
My Mom is not a large person. She’s about 5'4" and 120 lbs (I’m guessing here, I would never actually ask — but she’s small). Granted, she’s pretty fit and cycles and runs regularly, but she’s not someone I imagine when I think of exceptional feats of strength and stamina.
When a paramedic team arrives, they will typically perform CPR in two-minute intervals, taking turns because it’s incredibly tiring. I’ve never done it, so I can’t relate to the stamina required. I can do push ups for two-minutes straight, and that’s pretty tiring.
My Mom did CPR by herself on her unconscious, dead husband for 12 minutes.
Emergency responders are everyday heroes
When Mom called 911 and explained the situation, the 911 operator was very direct and Mom believed he could sense her uncertainty, “Get him on the floor! You will not hurt him.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“Ma’am, you NEED to get your husband on the floor NOW.”
The operator was firm and direct with my Mom. He instructed her on the tasks she needed to do. Getting him off the couch and onto the floor, finding the spot on his chest to start doing CPR, telling her how to perform chest compressions and asking her to count out loud so he could hear.
“One… two… three…” counted my Mom (think “one Mississippi”).
“No, you must do this faster. 1 and 2 and 3 and 4…”
He stayed on the phone with my Mom, helping her perform CPR for the first time in her life with no training for 12 minutes before the ambulance arrived.
The ambulance crew took over CPR (taking turns), defibrillated his heart back to life, and rushed him to our small town general hospital. Once there a team of nurses, doctors, and even administrators rushed around the hospital collecting all the ice they could find to pack around my Dad.
With more than 12 minutes elapsing since Dad’s heart had beat on it’s own, there was a significant risk of brain damage due to the lack of oxygen. By inducing hypothermia the body’s metabolism is greatly slowed reducing the chance of permanent damage to the brain.
The staff at the hospital found ice anywhere they could and packed it around my Dad to try to bring his core body temperature down. They then started preparing him for air transport to the Intensive Care Unit at Kelowna General Hospital.
Once there the ICU team worked to stabilize him and began bringing his core temperature back out of hypothermia before attempting to wake him up. That same night, his heart stopped again and had to be defibrillated once more.
The emergency care my Dad received from the moment my Mom called 911 was amazing. The 911 operator, the paramedics, the team in Salmon Arm, the transport team, and the team in Kelowna played a critical role in this incredibly responsive machine that is our emergency medical system. As a Canadian, I could not be more grateful or proud.
Hope and expectations are not the same
The first night in ICU was a pretty scary night. We didn’t know what was going to happen, if he was going to survive, or what his recovery might look like. I know that Dad would not want to be kept alive in a vegetative state and my biggest fear was having to make a decision to end his life.
The word “hope” is used a fair bit. “We are hopeful that he will make a full recovery.” “We are hopeful that he will wake up tomorrow night.” The word “expectation” is also used, but the two meanings are easily conflated. When the ICU nurse first woke Dad up using a sternal rub and his eyes almost shot open and he looked to find my Mom’s voice, we were quite hopeful about his recovery. He seemed to recognize us.
But then the ICU staff shared with us that he was not breathing on his own when they reduced his ventilator support. This was not what they had hoped, but it was not unexpected. My expectations and hopes were the same. I felt incredibly defeated and started to believe that recovery was going to be next to impossible.
As he became more awake we could see a sense of recognition in his eyes. It was painful to watch his discomfort and confusion as he fought against the ventilator, unable to communicate with us. When he did start breathing on his own, hope renewed. When we called the ICU for an update late one night, I was elated when the nurse said that he was awake and asked if I wanted to talk with him. The conversation was short and confused. I also learned that he had decided to take himself to the bathroom when the nurses weren’t looking, falling and smacking his head, producing quite a shiner on his eye. Again, my hope elevated.
The next day our conversation was more confusion. Dad could not remember any of the events the week or two prior to his arrest. He could not remember falling the night before. He could not remember what he had asked me just minutes prior. We had the same conversation over and over again. Him discovering that he had had cardiac arrest. Asking how I found out. Learning that Mom had called 911 and performed CPR. Again, and again. Each time emotional as he seemed to be rediscovering this knowledge.
This conversation was my big undoing as I began to feel that my Dad was not going to recover in a meaningful way. I started to understand the difference between “hope” and “expectation” and I tried to prepare myself for a father changed in fundamental ways. Despite the assurances from the ICU staff that this memory difficulty and confusion was expected. My hope had started to disappear.
Strength comes where it comes from
I did not really deal with this stuff in a public way. I did not share much of it on various social media. I found strength in my family, in Julie, and the small number of people that knew what was going on. I did not want to share this with a lot of people. I would not have found it helpful. I tried my best to be strong around my Dad and my Mom and my sisters. My emotion would come later as I found time to process my thoughts alone. And this helped me better understand what it means to be an introvert.
I found strength in Julie, who could describe for me her experience surviving a semi-truck driving onto her car. I found strength in my friend Siobhan telling me her experience surviving a stroke. I found strength in my Brother-in-law Mike, who was able to give me information over the phone during moments of crisis.
I felt and still feel some guilt about things. About not going with Dad on a cycling trip to California. Guilt when I learned about a friend’s Dad diagnosed with terminal cancer while my Dad avoided death. Guilt about not calling or visiting as often as I could.
Sometimes things just happen
Dad’s cardiac arrest, just happened. Numerous tests have turned up no particular cause. He was under a certain amount of work-related stress lately; tests ruled that out. He was training to do a 180km bike race and was frequently cycling very long distances; tests ruled that out. He ate healthy, he was fit, had a strong healthy heart. There was nothing he could have done differently to prevent this. His heart just… stopped.
There does appear to be an underlying genetic cause as his older sister died in her sleep under very similar circumstances, but at this point it is unknown as to what that cause is.
As a result of this incident and the apparent genetic link my sisters, my aunt, and myself will need to undergo some tests to help isolate and better understand the cause.
Dad survived. Roughly only 2% of people will survive. He is making a full recovery. Because of his fitness his recovery is quicker and more complete than most. He was not allowed to drive for 6 months, so he just walked everywhere. In September, 2014 he walked 141km (according to his RunKeeper), that’s an average of 4.5km per day. In January he was given back the permission and freedom to drive again. He is alert, quick to joke, and the same person I knew before this whole thing. He has an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) which monitors his heart rate and will defibrillate it if it falls outside of an acceptable range. My Mom retired in the fall and they are heading on vacation with their camper van to Phoenix to take in some sun, do some cycling and get away.
I wouldn’t call my Mom a hero. She didn’t go out of her way to save my Dad. She just happened to be there, did exactly what she should have, in an impossible to imagine circumstance with far more emotional and physical strength than I can understand.
My Dad died on June 2oth. Through some magical summoning of strength, my Mom brought him back to life.