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Saving Lives: The Importance of Immediate CPR in Cardiac Arrest

Updated: May 31, 2023

Cardiac arrest and heart attack survivor Christi Eberhardt (right) with her daughter, Emily. (Photo courtesy of Christi Eberhardt)

As a child life specialist in the emergency room of a children's hospital, Christi Eberhardt spent her days getting kids comfortable with their upcoming procedures. She showed them IVs and other surgical equipment and tried to ease their fears and anxieties. Little did she know that one day, she would be the one in need of emergency medical attention.

On a Wednesday morning in Akron, Ohio, Eberhardt left the hospital to make a phone call. As she crossed the bridge connecting the garage to the building, she suddenly collapsed. Hospital security witnessed the fall on camera and immediately called a code blue, signaling a medical emergency. A nurse rushed outside to help, starting CPR on Eberhardt, who had gone into cardiac arrest and yelled for an automated external defibrillator, or AED. Several of Eberhardt's co-workers arrived, but they didn't recognize her at first. One colleague said her skin was so blue that it was "the color of Cookie Monster."

An ambulance took Eberhardt to a nearby adult hospital. When she arrived, she didn't have a heartbeat. A doctor suggested giving up, but a resident refused to let go. She continued CPR and AED shocks for over an hour, trying to restart Eberhardt's heart. Finally, on the 13th shock, she succeeded.

Doctors put Eberhardt in a medically induced coma to create a gentle environment for healing. This helps reduce damage to the brain and raises the chances of recovery after cardiac arrest. Even so, doctors told her family she had less than a 5% chance of waking up, and if she did, she would likely have severe brain damage.

Days later, she squeezed the hand of a loved one, and her doctor cautioned that it might've been merely a reflex. The next day, Eberhardt opened her eyes. She blinked once for yes and twice for no. They gave her a children's alphabet board, and she typed out what she remembered happening. "That's when they knew my brain function was still there," she said.

Despite her progress, Eberhardt still had a long road to recovery. Her lungs, kidneys, and liver were showing the strain of having been deprived of oxygen. Then there was her heart. She was diagnosed with a condition that made it more likely she'd have an irregular heartbeat, so she had surgery to implant a defibrillator, which jolts the heart back into a normal rhythm if needed.

Eberhardt eventually went home and was doing well – so well that, 17 months later, she delivered a healthy baby girl. However, she still struggled with depression due to her heart condition. "I put on my happy face, but I just wasn't happy," she said. "My doctor said, you can be a 'woe is me' or you can make a difference." She chose the latter.

She started a support group for people in Northeast Ohio who've experienced cardiac arrest and got involved with the American Heart Association. "Sharing my story is the best healing medicine for me," she said. Her group encouraged lawmakers to support a bill requiring high school seniors to take a CPR course before graduating. It passed.

Twelve years after her initial cardiac arrest, Eberhardt got divorced. The next day, she felt anxious. Her best friend, who's a nurse, came over. She arrived to find Eberhardt on the floor. She called 911.

The inside wall of Eberhardt's main artery in her heart had torn. This is a type of heart attack called a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD.

Despite her many challenges, Eberhardt remains grateful for her second chance at life and is dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of early CPR intervention.

As she says, "I'm here for a reason. I like to think there's many of them. I live every day to the absolute fullest."

Eberhardt's story is a testament to the life-saving potential of CPR. When performed correctly and promptly, CPR can help to maintain vital blood flow to the heart and brain until medical professionals arrive, dramatically increasing the chances of survival and reducing the risk of long-term brain damage.

In fact, the American Heart Association reports that immediate CPR can double or even triple a person's chances of surviving cardiac arrest.

However, despite its proven effectiveness, many people are still hesitant to perform CPR, either due to a lack of training or fear of doing it wrong.

To combat this, Eberhardt and other cardiac arrest survivors have been advocating for increased CPR education and training, particularly in high schools and other public settings.

In 2018, Ohio became one of the first states to pass legislation requiring all high school seniors to complete a CPR training course before graduating, thanks in part to Eberhardt's advocacy efforts.

Similar initiatives are underway in other states and communities across the country, as more and more people recognize the life-saving potential of early CPR intervention.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where someone is experiencing cardiac arrest, remember Eberhardt's story and the crucial role that early CPR can play in saving a life. By taking action quickly and confidently, you could be the difference between life and death.

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