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Wednesday
Jun122013

PSA (subtitle: Why I Suck at Life)

I was hard at work Friday afternoon, building my author platform (which is code for screwing around on Twitter), when my neighbors phoned. I’ve only known Wendy and Dave for a few years, but they seem like genuinely nice people — always willing to lend a hand (or a garden tool), and friendly without being intrusive or pushy about it. In short, they’re the perfect neighbors for someone as sociopathic introverted as me.

Wendy and Dave had gone to San Antonio to celebrate their 20th anniversary, leaving their two daughters, 11 and 5, at home with family friend “Aunt” Sally for the weekend. Wendy said her eldest daughter, Zoe, had called them because Aunt Sally had gone to take a nap a couple hours ago and wouldn’t wake up despite repeated efforts from the girls. I ran to her house and found Aunt Sally (a young-looking 52) in bed, not breathing. Her eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling, and there was a foamy discharge around her mouth, like toothpaste bubbles that had popped and dried. Dave had been trying to call 911 from San Antonio, and I grabbed their portable phone and did the same.

It’s hard to describe how chaotic everything felt in that moment. I’d only been in Wendy and Dave’s house once, a couple years ago, and I’d never been upstairs. Just trying to find their bedroom was like stumbling through a pitch-black maze, and simple things, like locating a light switch or operating a new phone, seemed inordinately complex. I had my cell phone (with Wendy still on the line) held to one ear, and their portable phone with 911 to the other. For a couple minutes, I was nothing more than a conduit. I channeled questions I couldn’t answer (house address, Sally’s age, medical history, etc.) from 911 to Wendy, and then parroted her answers right back.

The 911 dispatcher told me I needed to get Sally on her back and onto the floor right away. The chaos factor had somehow tripled by this point: Wendy is crying in my right ear, 911 is feeding me instructions in the other, Aunt Sally’s hyperactive poodle is growling at me, then licking me, then jumping all over me AND the body, the 5-year old is bouncing on the bed beside Aunt Sally, cheerfully urging her to wake up, while Zoe, the 11-year old, is telling me how she tried to listen for a heartbeat and couldn’t hear one. Despite the panic I was feeling inside, I somehow managed to sound calm and reassuring when I told Zoe to take her sister and the damned dog downstairs. I gave them an encouraging smile and told them not to worry, that they'd done an awesome job and I was going to help Aunt Sally now. It’s been three days, and I still can’t remember that moment without my hands shaking.

I didn’t wait to see if the kids did what I asked because I was focused on moving Aunt Sally off the bed. This is the point where I'd really like to say I didn't have a single squeamish thought and just leaped into action. The latter part is true, at least. I never once hesitated, even though I was pretty sure Aunt Sally had been dead for quite some time. For the next few moments, my mind seemed to operate apart from my body. While my arms were sliding beneath her knees and waist in what was perhaps the most incredibly inept attempt to move a body, ever, my mind was in freak-out mode, bouncing around like a feral cat in a dog kennel. I kept saying, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," to this woman with the dead, open eyes, while in the back of my head a voice was chanting, "Oh, God, I don't want to do this ... I HAVE to do this ... please don't make me do this ... you can do this … you can do this … you can do this."

Of course I was doing it all wrong. I have really weak arms — I can’t bench-press a feather, so I don’t know why I thought I could just lift her up and carry her like some poorly conceived reenactment of An Officer and a Gentleman. Moving a completely prone body is something that's hard to understand until you've tried it. I'd say it was like trying to lift a 175 lb. sack of flour, except it's not anything like that. Flour in a sack would have its weight somewhat evenly distributed, whereas a human body is dense in places you don’t expect and can’t predict. 

It didn’t take me long to realize I was never going to get Aunt Sally off the bed this way. So I snatched up the phone and told the guy at 911 that I just wasn't strong enough to do what he’d asked. I didn’t recognize my own voice, probably because it was filled with the sort of despair that comes from knowing you’re in a life-or-death situation and failing miserably. Fear, panic, frustration … I felt it all rising inside me, bubbling up my throat, ready to erupt in one giant, desperate sob. But then the 911 guy told me to grab whatever blankets or sheets I could find beneath Aunt Sally and use them to pull her to the floor. Because duh. And also ehhhh. Let’s add “stupid” to the myriad emotions I was experiencing.

Sally was lying on a thick comforter, so there was something sturdy to grab. A large, slate nightstand was blocking her path to the floor, but 911 told me not to worry about hitting her head or hurting her when she fell.

I called on my feeble arms once more and somehow managed to pull, tug, and yank her off the bed. Of course I also knocked a bunch of crap off the nightstand, and even as I’m reaching for the phone again I’m realizing that I just dumped all this stuff right on this poor woman’s face — bottles, lotions, a tumbler full of water and the tumbler itself are raining down on her — and she isn’t flinching or blinking or jerking or doing ANYTHING, and so my brain decides to take a little picture and forever preserve the image of her unseeing eyes and her slack face, because obviously I would need to be shown this scene again and again, whether awake or asleep, for who knows how many more days or weeks or months.

While my brain was being ever so helpful, the guy on the phone was instructing me to start chest compressions. I felt something pop beneath the heel of my hand on the first one, because this story can’t possibly get any more horrible. I didn’t stop, though. I had the phone pinched between my ear and my shoulder, but it kept trying to pop out every few seconds because I was moving so much. I was doing all sorts of weird contortions to keep it in place — if I dropped it, I’d lose the 911 guy who was counting off the chest compressions for me. The pace you’re supposed to use is a hell of a lot faster than I’d ever realized (100 per minute!), so I’m glad I could hear him and sync my motions to his voice.

I can’t remember how many times he counted to thirty before the first police officer arrived. All I know is that I’ve never been so relieved to relinquish responsibility for something in my life. When I tried to stop, however, the officer told me no, keep going, keep doing the chest compressions, and then HE started to count them off for me. He opened a respirator bag and connected some leads between a tiny machine he’d brought and Sally’s chest. An extremely loud, continuous tone came from the machine, along with mechanical instructions to resume CPR. I think perhaps a pulse was supposed to have registered? We stayed as we were, me doing chest compressions and him using the respirator bag in between reps, until the paramedics arrived. My role was officially over, except for the millionty questions the police would be asking throughout the evening.

I went downstairs to check on the girls and was surprised to find my daughter there in the living room with them. I’d told her to stay inside our house, but the fire truck, ambulance, and five police cars parked outside had frightened her. I never heard a single siren, although I assume they were used. Maybe adrenaline blocked the sound?

Wendy called to let me know they’d checked out of their hotel in San Antonio and were heading back to Austin. I had her speak to the police, who needed to locate Aunt Sally’s next of kin. It turns out Aunt Sally had mentioned having some chest pains earlier, although they apparently weren’t bad enough to seek treatment. Zoe pointed out a grocery bag on the counter; Aunt Sally had brought a bunch of stuff to make the girls treats during their fun weekend together. According to Zoe, Aunt Sally hadn’t been there very long when she’d said she felt tired and decided to take a little nap. Fatigue, as I’d later learn, is a common heart attack symptom. I recalled there being a wet washcloth on the nightstand, and when I asked Zoe about it she said Sally was sweating a lot — another warning sign of a heart attack. Then again, it was 106 degrees here Friday afternoon. Sweating is an easy symptom to dismiss when it's summer in central Texas.

After obtaining police and parental consent, I took all three girls (and the stupid dog) home with me. I really didn’t want the kids to see the body being removed from the house, and the police heartily agreed. I cannot say enough about our amazing first responders. I realize this was probably “all in a day’s work” to them, but their confidence and competence made a terrible situation seem a little less so.

The girls had never stayed with us before, but I offered to keep them for however long they and their parents would like, which ended up being from Friday afternoon through Sunday night. My daughter got a glimpse of what it’s like to have an older and younger sister, and I got validation for my one-and-done childbearing decision. I jest — they’re all really good kids.

When I tucked them in the first night, I told the eldest girl that I was just one bedroom over and she was welcome to come and get me if they needed anything.

“Even if you’re asleep?” she asked. 

“Of course,” I said. “It’s okay to wake me up.”

“But when I tried to wake up Aunt Sally, I couldn’t.”

Guh. Just ... guh.

I assured her my heart was in great shape, and that what had happened to Aunt Sally was rare. But it really isn’t. And this is where my story becomes a PSA, people.

Everyone should know the warning signs of a heart attack. Most episodes don’t involve sudden, searing pain like we’ve been conditioned to expect from television drama. Some are so subtle they’re called “silent heart attacks.” In every case, though, minutes matter! Familiarize yourself with the symptoms here:

Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

And remember: women can exhibit different warning signs than men. Heart disease is the number one killer of women, so educate yourself on the differences.

Heart Attack Symptoms in Women

I hope you never find yourself in the sort of situation I encountered on Friday. But if you do, I’m sure you’ll respond with far less bumbling and clumsiness. There are a thousand things I wish I’d done differently, although I did other things — important things — that I never knew I could do.

 

Will I be better equipped to handle the next emergency that comes along? Hard to say. I'm actually hoping I don't have to find out. In the meantime, you can bet I'll be leaving crisis management skills off my resume.

 

 

 

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  • Response
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