Coleen Nilsen’s story is about as freaky as a story can get. An accident at work, in which a box with a bicycle inside fell on her abdomen, landed Coleen near death from cardiac arrest.
Coleen, now 38, was 19 when she was working at a retail store in her hometown of Bellmawr, New Jersey.
One day in March 1998, she was unloading boxes with a coworker. One slid from a shelf and onto her.
She later went to the doctor because it hurt, and he told her she had separated cartilage from her rib cage. Just take it easy, he said.
But then, a few days later, Coleen came down with a stomach bug. Or so she thought. She went to her parents’ house for some TLC. Her mom, Carol, made chicken soup and gave Coleen Tylenol, which the doctor had recommended for the cartilage tear.
“She was doing the mom thing,” Coleen remembered. And she was good at, being an EMT and a CPR instructor.
Then, Coleen started to throw up.
“She was pale, she was clammy,” Carol said.
And then her brother, Frank, came home and saw his sister, who was at the bottom of the stairs.
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked.
“She’s got a stomach virus,” Carol said.
“She does not have a stomach virus,” her brother said.
He was right. She did not have a stomach bug; she had internal bleeding. It had caused her heart to stop.
Carol called 911.
The paramedics arrived, as did police from three towns who heard the call and recognized the address.
“They were all my students,” Carol said. “They started doing CPR. Someone said she’d gone into cardiac arrest, and I said, ‘No, no, this can’t be.’ It was pretty ugly. They threw me out.”
Doctors gave Coleen a 1 percent chance to live. She spent 28 days in the hospital.
But survive she did, and she was back to work in about two months. Soon, however, she switched jobs and is now a CPR educator at Kennedy Health in Stratford, New Jersey. Brother Frank and her father also became CPR instructors, and Coleen and Carol often teach together.
“She’s a wonderful teaching example, because she was young, she was healthy, and so she’s really an example of how you never know when you will need it,” said Carol, now the basic life support coordinator at Kennedy Health.
“I’m here because of CPR, and I preach my message to anyone who will listen,” said Coleen.
“I have taught 400 to 500 people a year,” for almost 20 years, Coleen said proudly. She doesn’t know how many people’s lives may have been saved on account of her efforts, “but I’d like to think I’ve indirectly saved a few,” she said.
Part of the Nilsen family’s message is that freaky things do happen and that it is important to be prepared to do CPR.
“Without CPR, she wouldn’t be here,” Carol said.