Vicki and Jerry Conway didn’t use the words “Christmas miracle” to describe what happened to them last December, but they believe there was some Divine intervention involved.
It began Saturday, Dec. 14, about 9:30 p.m. The Washington couple had just gotten home from being out all day, and they had sat down to watch some TV when Jerry noticed how quiet Vicki, his wife of 39 years, had become.
“She was lying on the love seat, and I was on the sofa,” he said. “I don’t know what we were talking about, but she didn’t say anything, and I thought, surely she’s not asleep already.
“When I got up, I kind of shook her. Her eyes were open and just rolled back in her head. Then I said, ‘Vicki,’ and . . . she didn’t say anything, so that’s when I started CPR.”
What Is CPR?
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is an emergency procedure that is done when a person is unresponsive (not breathing or gasping) because his or her heart has stopped beating, also known as cardiac arrest. This is different from a heart attack, which occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked, the American Heart Association notes on its website.
The difference between the two can be confusing, and many people mistakenly use cardiac arrest and heart attack interchangeably. The American Heart Association describes it more simply as cardiac arrest is an electrical problem with the heart, and a heart attack is a circulation problem.
“Most heart attacks do not lead to cardiac arrest, but when cardiac arrest occurs, heart attack is a common cause,” the website reads. “Other conditions may also disrupt the heart’s rhythm and lead to cardiac arrest.”
When a person is in cardiac arrest and unresponsive, CPR is needed to keep the blood circulating through their body to protect the organs. It involves pushing on the chest in a rhythmic manner to pump the blood and breathing air into the person’s mouth, although research has found that the chest compressions are the more important component.
‘You Never Think You’re Going to Do It on a Loved One’
Jerry Conway, who retired from the Rockwood School District two years ago this spring, had learned CPR five years ago for his job. Nurses from St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield came to Wildwood Middle School to teach CPR and the Heimlich maneuver to all of the staff.
He never once had to use anything that he had learned in that class while he was at work, but instead used it at home to save his wife’s life.
“You never think you’re going to have to do it on your loved ones,” Jerry said.
Actually, those are the most likely people you will help with CPR, said Sally Plowman, OTR/L, education specialist and CPR instructor with Mercy Hospital Washington.
“Four out of five cardiac arrests happen in the home,” she noted.
Unfortunately, most sudden cardiac arrest victims (92 percent) die before ever reaching the hospital. Having more people know how to give CPR would help, said Plowman.
“Immediate CPR can double or even triple a victim’s chance of survival,” she remarked.
“You’re pushing hard enough to force blood circulation through the body, because they need oxygenated blood to keep their organs alive.”
There’s no doubt to the Conways that it made a difference for Vicki.
“I started CPR,” said Conway, “then realized I needed to call 911, so I stopped, got the phone and called. But I couldn’t get the speaker phone to work, so I just threw it over on the chair.
“They said stay on the line, but I couldn’t hold the phone and do CPR.”
Conway said even though it had been years since he’d first learned and practiced CPR, the steps came back to him, and the 911 operator helped him too.
“I had to get her off the sofa . . . they told me to get her on a flat, solid surface, then kept doing the compressions until the ambulance got there,” he said.
Plowman said that’s the benefit of taking a CPR course — even if it’s years before you ever use it, you will have a memory of how it felt.
“If you’ve never practiced on a mannequin, you don’t know how hard to push, you don’t know where to put your hands . . . ”
In Vicki Conway’s case, it turned out that a heart attack (blood flow being blocked to the heart) had caused her to go into cardiac arrest. A week later, when she still hadn’t regained consciousness and appeared to have no brain activity, the doctor told Jerry to prepare their children for the fact that once he took her off the ventilator, she might die.
If Vicki lived, the doctor believed she would be in a long-term care facility.
But that morning the doctor called Jerry with miraculous news. “He said her mind came back and she was out of the coma,” Conway recalled.
Vicki doesn’t remember any part of the experience before waking up on Dec. 21. Today she is doing well and is grateful to her husband, all of the first responders and hospital staff who helped her survive.
“They were all great,” said Vicki Conway. “We can’t say enough good things about any of them.”
‘We Do It to Be Proactive’
There are many area businesses that provide CPR training for their employees. For the last 30 years, the team at Ed’s Drilling and Blasting, Washington, have attended CPR and first aid training every couple of years.
“It’s just part of the comprehensive and active safety training that we do,” said owner Eric Rau. “It’s a key component, and it helps all of us on and off the job.
“We mainly do it to be proactive,” he remarked.
It’s knowledge and skills he wants his employees to have for everyone’s benefit at work, but also at home with their families.
“We pay as much attention to infant CPR as anything else because a lot of us have grandkids,” said Rau.
“The people who work for us are skilled, and we want to keep them.”
The company employs 17 people full time and all participate in the CPR and first aid training. All of them came to a classroom in the Mercy Medical Building for an eight-hour class.
But not all classes need to be that long. It depends on content (adult, child and/or infant CPR) and whether or not people need to be certified, said Plowman.
“I can teach an adult CPR without skills certification in 35 minutes,” she said. “And that includes how to use an AED (automatic external defibrillator).”
Plowman said she and other instructors also are able to go to a work site or school to teach. This week they are working with middle school students at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Washington.
“A lot of times we will customize a class,” said Plowman. “If you don’t need certification, we can teach a group of friends and family even.”
The AED component of the class is valuable because research has found that even though the devices are available in many places, people are reluctant to use them to help someone because they are afraid, Plowman noted.
‘We Have to Train More People’
Mercy Hospital Washington isn’t the only place where people can learn CPR. Local fire departments and ambulance districts also offer training.
Plowman is hopeful that more people will consider becoming CPR trained so they can step forward in an emergency.
“We have to train more people because people just feel helpless,” she said.
There are any number of reasons why people don’t take the time to learn CPR, but the biggest one is likely the time they think is involved, said Plowman.
One class to learn adult, child and infant CPR and choking is about three hours long, she noted. To learn just one of those would be a much shorter class.
Cost may also be a deterrent, but in cases where certification is not necessary, cost can be minimal and the class may even be free if there are volunteer instructors and the books are donated, said Plowman.
For more information on any upcoming CPR classes available at Mercy Hospital Washington or to find out about customizing a class for your group, people can call Plowman at 636-239-8008.