It's a Miracle: Three Women's Stories of Survival
"Let Me Tell You About The Day I Died."
Virginia survived cardiac arrest while driving.
"My heart stopped beating while I was talking to a friend. She heard me very calmly say 'Oh no, oh no.' She thought I'd spilled coffee."
Actually, Virginia Wallace can't tell you much about the day she died -- she doesn't remember it. "What I do know," she says, "is that I had many angels watching over me." Driving to work on the New Jersey Interstate early one morning in May 2010, the 48-year-old insurance manager went into cardiac arrest. "Her heart stopped beating completely and she collapsed at the wheel," says Benjamin Abella, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
"I had on an earpiece and was talking to a friend," Wallace says. "She heard me very calmly say, 'Oh no, oh no.' She thought I'd spilled my coffee." The first miracle is that she didn't die in a car crash, says Dr. Abella. Instead, her car plowed into a protective guardrail that brought the vehicle to a stop without causing Wallace further injury.
The second miracle was that two people -- one an EMS worker and one a CPR instructor -- saw the crash and immediately stopped to help. (The next thing Wallace's friend on the phone heard was these men's voices.) Dr. Abella estimates that Wallace, with no heartbeat or pulse, was medically dead for about 10 minutes as CPR failed to revive her. But the third person to arrive was a state trooper whose patrol car happened to be equipped with a defibrillator, which he used to shock Wallace's heart back into action. "Her chance of surviving at that point was about 2 percent," Dr. Abella says.
Wallace had a pulse when she arrived at a nearby hospital, but even revived cardiac arrest victims face a serious threat of brain damage. In another twist of fate, an ER nurse, a doctor, and a critical care nurse had all recently been to a workshop on a new technique that reduces this risk by cooling the body as soon as possible to reach the goal temperature within six hours of cardiac arrest. Only 33 percent of hospitals in the United States offer it -- and this wasn't one of them. But a pen the nurse held in her hand was imprinted with the number of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, which does offer the procedure. She dialed, and Wallace was flown there by helicopter. Upon arrival she was comatose and her involuntary posture -- arms extended with wrists flexed -- indicated significant brain injury. Doctors lowered her body temperature from 98.6 to 91 degrees, which reduced her brain's need for oxygen and curbed the release of toxins that can kill brain cells.
Wallace remained in a state of hypothermia for 24 hours while doctors anxiously watched her vitals. Then they gradually warmed her up and weaned her off the medications. "There's no specific way to know who will wake up from therapeutic hypothermia and who won't," Dr. Abella says. Three days passed with no response as Wallace's husband, Andy, and two boys, ages 16 and 9, kept a somber vigil. Then suddenly she opened her eyes and saw her family and members of the medical team crowding the room. "I rushed to meet her and welcomed her back into the land of the living," Dr. Abella says. Wallace was stunned and amazed. "I thought, 'Why am I here in the hospital?' People kept saying they were glad I was back and I just looked at them and wondered what they were talking about."
Wallace showed rapid improvement and went home in a week. After six months of cognitive therapy she went back to work. She now has a small defibrillator implanted in her chest to give her heart a jump start if it ever fails again. Though dogged by minor memory loss for a couple of weeks after the procedure, as well as some occasional fatigue, she has had no further problems. "To look at me, it's like nothing ever happened," Wallace says. "It's very overwhelming to think about at times, but I've always had incredibly strong faith and I know it just wasn't my time."