When a Heart Stops Beating: A True Story of Health Crisis

By Kara Ranck, RN, BSN

There is nothing like getting a wake-up call at 3:30 am and hearing your mom’s panicked voice saying, “Kara needs to come. Dad is in cardiac arrest and is not responding.”   That type of call is enough to stop anyone’s heartbeat. My nerves are tingling even now as I type this eight months later. That was the unforgettable call my husband Trevor and I received on Wednesday, May 2, 2018. I have never moved so quickly after waking up. As I dressed, Trevor prayed and said he would take care of the kids. All I remember about the drive to my parents’ house is crying out to God. “God, be with my dad. God, save my dad. God, you love my dad more than I do,” I prayed over and over again. Because, you see, I believe in God. I believe in a God who can heal people when science and statistics say no. I believe that God loves my Dad so much He died on a cross for him and that if my dad died that morning, he would be safe in heaven because he trusts Jesus as his Savior [1]. As a registered nurse, I know that when your heart stopping beating and blood stops flowing, it means death. Death to brain tissue and normal function. Time is tissue. The longer you go without blood, the more tissue you lose.

When I arrived at the end of my parent’s road, I saw the eerie reflection of ambulance and police lights in the darkness. I pulled into the yard and sprinted towards the house where they were wheeling my dad out on a stretcher. I could see he was on a ventilator to help him breathe, and I think I first asked the paramedic how Dad was. He replied that Dad was currently stable. I then spoke to my dad. “Dad, I’m here. Jesus is with you. I am praying for you.” I thought I saw his eyelids move. Next I looked beyond him and saw my mom and middle sister who were telling me to go with Dad in the ambulance. As I sat in the front, I asked the EMT who was driving what had happened and how long my Dad was “down,” meaning how long his heart was not beating normally.

My mom had awakened around 3:20 to my Dad making a loud sound. He normally snores so she tried to wake him up, but received no response.  Then the sound stopped. She saw very quickly that something was not right and called 911. My dad is broad and six feet while my mom is petite and a little over five feet. She was not able to move or help him. God, in his great mercy, had a police officer stationed at the end of their road that night. He and another officer arrived within five minutes. Let me say that again- five minutes. Wow. Two ambulances arrived within another five minutes. Wow. Yet, they needed to shock my Dad’s heart numerous times and “worked” on him for about 20-30 minutes before his heart returned to a normal rhythm. My dad has a pacemaker related to a previous and different heart issue. Several days later, we got the pacemaker report that showed my dad’s heart had gone into ventricular fibrillation around 3:15 am that morning and remained in that lethal rhythm for 33 minutes. Remember how I said time is tissue? Thirty-three minutes is an awfully long time for your body tissues to not receive the blood they need to function.

After arriving in the emergency department (ED), I was shown into a waiting room. Shortly after, my mom and sister arrived as well. We waited for what seemed an eternity, talking with the chaplain, paramedic, hospital staff, and updating family and close friends via phone. Praying. They told us that they needed to resuscitate my dad once again during this time period. And then we were told my dad was going upstairs for a heart catheterization to check if this event was caused by blockages to his coronary arteries. Before they took him, we went back to the ED to see him. He remained intubated and sedated, but that didn’t stop my family from talking with him. We said, “Dad, we’re here. Mom, Elise, and Kara.” He nodded his head. No lie. “Dad, Nalene (my oldest sister) is praying. She sent Psalm 121.” He nodded his head again as we read the verses to him [2] . We sang to him. He nodded again, and also moved his left side when the tech was drawing lab work. “God, he’s still here,” I prayed.

When they called us into the conference room after dad’s heart cath, I was sure they would say he had severe blockages to his arteries, and they would need to perform open heart surgery. Instead,  Dr. Andersen, the cardiologist, said in a somewhat surprised voice that dad had no blockages and his heart looked great.  “We think this may just be a rhythm issue.” Our next stop was the ICU, where doctors planned to start dad on hypothermia. When a person has a cardiac event, his or her body goes into defense mode. It starts using up oxygen, sugar, and electrolytes in an attempt to preserve function. This defense mechanism also damages the body, so decreasing a person’s body temperature helps to shut the body down so it cannot further damage itself. Before a person is cooled to 91 degrees Fahrenheit, there is some testing necessary. While dad was waiting for a CT scan, we got to see him in the ICU. Again, we talked to him and played his favorite song on the phone. He responded, moving his eyelids and lips around his breathing tube.

Honestly, it was hard in those moments to truly believe we were seeing him respond. I know I questioned whether or not it was real. Even though I wanted it to be, I knew, based on my scientific knowledge, it was not probable. But those moments of hope, whether I fully believed they were true, helped us walk through the next 48 hours. During that time, dad was intubated (on the ventilator), fully sedated and paralyzed- in a medically induced coma during hypothermia. At times, when his sedation was running low, we saw him respond again with fluttering eyelids and restless movements. I hoped these were purposeful responses, but there was no way to know what was left of the dad I knew before.
And then came the statistics and prognosis. If dad survived, doctors said, he would probably have neurological deficits since his heart had not been pumping for those thirty-three minutes, and he might require nursing home care at least for a time. Thud. That’s the sound of hope hitting the floor. We stood by dad’s side and prayed and sang for the longest two days of our lives. During this time, my mom had requested for our church, family, and friends to pray that God would fully restore Dad to health or take him to heaven. The thought of the in between was a lot to bear, and yet we had an undeniable peace.

During crisis, we can choose to focus on our great need at hand and despair or see the provisions we experience and find encouragement. One of the greatest blessings was the teamwork exemplified by my mom, sisters, and I. When people work together as God designed, it is only by His grace and to His glory. Crisis can draw people together or push them further apart. I saw God at work in the way my mom, my dad’s faithful partner and advocate, kept going, and going, and going. I saw how our family, friends, and church stepped in to meet needs-a CD player and CDs, transportation, babysitting, meals, prayers, prayers, and more prayers, mowing the lawn, coming at 3:30 am to be with my mom & dad, traveling, missing work, and the list goes on. The staff at the hospital was a blessing-past coworkers of mine giving hugs, a saint of a cleaning lady with the voice of an angel singing and praying with us, nurses and doctors who gave compassion along with expert medical care, and a dear chaplain providing support in the middle of the night.

And then came Friday morning. By this time, my dad’s body temperature had slowly returned to normal, his sedation was turned off, and the paralyzing agents were removed. I received a call about 6:00 am that my dad was awake, but I was to come quickly because he was very distraught. For the next several hours, while he was alert but unable to breathe on his own, we talked, read, sang, and kept him calm as we waited for the ventilator settings to be weaned and then removed. The pulmonologist (lung doctor) finally arrived and told dad the ventilator could be removed. He received a thumbs-up in response. My heart leapt! Dad was still here. All the signs that were hopeful were true! But yet, what was to come? As a nurse, I was able to remain in the room when they took the breathing tube out (extubated) Dad. And I will never ever forget saying, “Hi Dad” and hearing a “Hi” in response. As is turns out, my dad is completely neurologically intact. He functions the same as he did before his cardiac arrest. One week after his event, he was home from the hospital (equipped with an internal cardiac defibrillator). Three weeks later, he was back at work. That makes it all sound easy, I know. It wasn’t. There are still physical and emotional repercussions he experiences. But it was miraculous.

I know that some may be reading this thinking that the medical care dad received led to his astonishing outcome, and yes it did. But it takes some pretty dang good CPR to maintain adequate blood flow to a brain just to survive, let alone function at 100%. If the medical community had a way to insure all outcomes were this good, they would in a heartbeat (pun intended). Many doctors will tell you that the typical result of a cardiac arrest, such as my dad experienced, ends in a grave. My dad’s cardiologist Dr. Gohn told him, “I am a man of science, but you had a higher power on your side.” He also told him that the survival rate for cardiac arrest is 3% with 1% returning to normal or close to normal quality of life. Evidence shows those who receive CPR as soon as possible have the best outcomes. Some may say, “What a lucky coincidence that the police and ambulance crews were so close and responded so quickly.” I say it was a divine appointment. The neurologist told my family, “Wow. It was your prayers that did this.” An ICU nurse told my dad, in a visit afterwards, he didn’t think my dad would make it. 

We can say a lot of things. But the God of the Bible, whom I believe in, can do this. The God who creates life can just as easily sustain life [3]. The God who made our hearts and blood can insure our brains and bodies get the oxygen they need if it’s His will to sustain us [4]. I think that the hard part about every miracle though is that there are those reading this that have not experienced a miracle. Maybe you have sat beside a hospital bed for days, weeks, months and witnessed life lost. And you question why your loved one was not spared, when mine was. Honestly, I do not know. I am so sorry for your loss and have experienced loss myself. What I do know, is that there is a plan beyond what we can see now [5]. I know sometimes loss drives us to God while sometimes miracles do. And I know that regardless, we need to share our stories, because sometimes we need the hope of a miracle or the pain of a loss to see that which is beyond ourselves.

[1] Romans 3:21-24
[2] Psalm 121
[3] Genesis 1:26-27
[4] 1 Samuel 2:6
[5] Isaiah 55:8-9

let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing here before you healthy.i 11 This Jesus is
the stone rejected by you builders,
which has become the cornerstone.
12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.”                                                                       Acts 4:10-12

 Kara Ranck lives with her husband, two preschoolers, and 200 cows on their family dairy farm in Pennsylvania. Beginning in May 2019, Kara will curate a blog called The Rock + a Hard Place, a collective site of essays giving testimonies of how God (the Rock) meets people in their hard places. You can follow on Instagram @therock.and.ahardplace or the blog at https://www.therockandahardplace.com 

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