A First Responder’s Story of Survival
As the director of nursing, emergency, trauma and disaster services at Saint Louis University Hospital for nearly 12 years – and more than 40 years of nursing experience – Helen Sandkuhl, RN MSN CEN TNS FAEN, has experienced her fair share of trauma and stress.
After all, it’s part of her job as a first responder. However, nothing could’ve prepared her for the trauma she endured last June.
AT 5:30 p.m. on Monday, June 11, 2012, Helen had just returned home from a particularly stressful day in the ED at SLU Hospital when she experienced an inexplicable bout of indigestion.
To combat the unpleasant side effects, Helen drank a 7UP and then half of a bottle of Pepto Bismol. When that didn’t work, she decided to take a hot shower. And that’s when it hit her:
she was having a heart attack.
“I was in denial that a heart attack was even possible. The symptoms just weren’t that obvious,” recalls Helen. “Unfortunately, first responders – and women in particular – are often too busy caring for everyone else that we tend to neglect our own needs.”
Once Helen realized what was happening, she knew time was of the essence. So she called out to her youngest daughter, Claire (who also happened to be a student nurse), and told her to drive her to SLU Hospital’s ED. Claire insisted on calling 911; however, Helen worried it would take too long for an ambulance to arrive, so they quickly left in the car.
While en route to SLU Hospital, Helen called the ED to inform the staff that she was coming in because she was having a heart attack. Less than five minutes later, Helen walked into the ED, where her staff was anxiously awaiting her arrival. They hurriedly led her to a stretcher to begin emergency treatment. As soon as she was in a hospital gown, Steven Lorber, MD, an emergency physician, placed defibrillator electrode pads on Helen’s chest.
“Within 10 minutes, I told my team that I felt like I was going to pass out. I was really nervous that I was about to code, so I started praying with one of my nurses,” recalls Helen. “Then, everything went black. When I woke up, I remember looking around at Dr. Lorber and the nurses. I could see the shock on their faces.”
Helen went into full-blown cardiac arrest, which interrupted her heart’s normal rhythm (also known as ventricular fibrillation). Fortunately, she was in the right place at the right time. Dr. Lorber shocked Helen with a defibrillator. The medical team then bagged her with a manual resuscitator prior to performing CPR. She regained consciousness approximately 30 seconds later.
“That was a scary moment for all of us. Helen is such an inspirational figure for our department. She’s not only one of our own…she’s our Helen,” says Dr. Lorber. “Of course, she was downplaying her condition the whole time and constantly reassuring us that she would be just fine…but we knew how serious it was. Several of her nurses were crying over her, yet they remained focused on their jobs. That’s a testament to Helen. The example she sets for her staff is ultimately what saved her. As a team, we followed her lead, performed our jobs, and saved her life.”
“I am really lucky to be alive. How many people can say that their staff saved their life? I will be eternally grateful for what they did for me,” says Helen. “All the things I’d tried to instill in them, they gave back to me at a moment’s notice.”
Once the ED team stabilized Helen, she was transferred to the hospital’s cardiac catheterization lab, where cardiologist Robert Neumayr, MD, was waiting for her – and the large group of ED staff trailing closely behind. Her staff didn’t want to leave her side.
“I assumed we were receiving some sort of celebrity, because there were probably 30 people escorting
Helen to the cath lab,” says Dr. Neumayr. “Then again, Helen is pretty much a local celebrity, so it was fitting that she had such a large entourage.”
Assisted by his cath lab staff, Dr. Neumayr performed the stent procedure. “We worked really quickly and efficiently,” says Dr. Neumayr.
“Her right coronary artery was 100 percent occluded with plaque and a blood clot. However, using a stent, we were able to open the blockage and restore normal blood flow to her heart.”
Following the stent procedure, Helen was transferred to the ICU for four days and then to a patient room for another couple of days before being discharged home. She rested at home for two weeks before returning to work and beginning a three-month cardiac rehab assignment. Helen also took a blood thinner and aspirin daily for one year. She continues to have regular check-ups with Dr. Neumayr, who says her prognosis is very good.
“Helen was really lucky that she sought treatment as quickly as she did,” says Dr. Lorber. “Because she received treatment well within a 90-minute window, she didn’t sustain any notable heart damage.”
Helen’s had a lot of time to reflect on the heart attack that nearly killed her. She wakes up every morning thankful to be alive. She is also taking better care of herself, including eating a well-balanced diet and managing her stress levels.
“Being an ER nurse, you never take anything for granted,” says Helen. “Every day, I see seemingly healthy people walk in and never walk back out. On the other hand, I also see the sickest, near-death patients make complete recoveries. I’m just thankful I was able to walk out with my life.”
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