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“Hands Lifting Hearts” After Cardiac Arrest: A Mom and Daughter Story

Karen Huskins and her parents were celebrating at her friend’s wedding reception on Memorial Day weekend when Karen’s mother, Harriet, went into cardiac arrest. It was a terrifying moment for everyone.

“Mom had told me earlier that she didn’t feel well,” says Karen. “She thought she just had heartburn, so she brushed off the symptoms of chest tightness. After the bride and groom cut the cake, I looked across the table and noticed my mom’s lips looked blue. I was concerned, so I suggested she and my dad go to the emergency room. A few minutes later when Mom was taking some photos, she sat down in a chair and her head slumped straight down. I knew something was seriously wrong and asked a waitress to call 911.”

Karen’s mother wasn’t breathing, so her father Bill Huskins began doing chest compressions while two other guests jumped in to help him perform CPR. When EMS first-responders arrived at the reception, located at Capital City Club on the 26th floor of the Wachovia Building, Harriet didn’t have a pulse. They were able to revive her, but she coded again — this time, in the ambulance. Once again, they revived Harriet and then began a treatment called therapeutic hypothermia, which lowers the body’s temperature immediately after cardiac arrest in an effort to reduce the risk of brain damage from the lack of oxygen. WakeMed was one of the first health systems in the country to implement this protocol in conjunction with Wake County Emergency Services.

Upon arrival at WakeMed Raleigh Campus, Harriet went into surgery, where doctors found the main artery to her heart was 100 percent blocked. They inserted a stent, and she was taken to the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CICU). After 24 hours of therapeutic hypothermia, Harriet’s medical team began the slow, controlled rewarming process to bring her body back up to its normal temperature, which took about 18 hours.

“Mom remained in a coma for a week while we anxiously waited to see if she would recover,” says Karen. “Her prognosis was very grim.”

Taking it Day by Day

Karen, along with her father, sister Hazlette and her brother William, took turns stationed in WakeMed’s Critical Care Unit waiting room, watching for signs of improvement in their mother’s health. Many friends and family members came by to visit, bringing snacks and providing encouragement for the Huskins clan. Karen says extra support lifted their spirits and made the 12-hour days a lot more comforting.

“Being in the critical care waiting room was a very stressful situation. The days are extremely long, waiting minute by minute to receive any sort of update on her condition,” says Karen. “We met so many other patients’ families, some of whom were from out of town. Most of them didn’t have the support system we had. It was very humbling, and we were incredibly grateful for the outpouring of love we received.”

Each day of Harriet’s health journey was full of challenges. She had to have a tracheotomy, and she had begun abnormal posturing when she was in the coma. Posturing refers to rigid, involuntary body movements that are often a sign of brain or spinal cord injury; in Harriet’s case, she held her arms tightly at her sides and would clench her fists. After seeing this, her medical team was not optimistic about her chances for recovery.

“However, we were given a boost of hope when the neurologist evaluated our mother,” says Karen. “She determined that mom’s hand movements were not involuntary, and she encouraged us to pause and give mom more time to progress, even though she had been on a ventilator for quite some time. It was the glimpse of hope we’d been praying for.”

A fellow church member who is a nurse encouraged Karen and her siblings to talk to their mother when visiting because she could hear them speaking, even though she was unconscious. So, the family started writing Bible versus on the message board in their mother’s hospital room, talking to her and telling her funny stories. “We were holding on to our faith and believing for a miracle,” says Karen.

A Slow and Steady Recovery

Progress was slow, but little by little, Harriet began to make slight improvements.

“I was at work one day when my family called me from the hospital and said Mom had woken up,” Karen explains. “I rushed to WakeMed and walked into her room; she was sitting up in bed with the biggest smile on her face.”

Harriet’s care team had warned her family that she would have a long road to recovery. Because she was without oxygen for nearly eight minutes during cardiac arrest, she developed a slight brain injury resulting in short term memory loss. Harriet was eventually moved to a step-down unit and began speech therapy and cardiac rehab. After an eight-week stay at WakeMed Raleigh Campus, she was finally well enough to go home.

It’s been 12 years since Harriet’s cardiac event, and Karen says her mother is doing well at age 77. Meanwhile, Karen and her sister co-created “Hands Lifting Hearts Foundation,” to provide comfort bags to families in the CCU waiting room. They say it’s a way to pay forward the kindness and encouragement their family received during their time at WakeMed.

“When I think of WakeMed, I think of the incredible care my mom received and the state-of-the-art technologies that helped save her life,” says Karen. “WakeMed has played such a pivotal role in our family’s lives. Going through this experience taught us to be more compassionate and sensitive towards what others may be going through in their own lives.”