In the early morning of July 5, 2011, Sara Johnson lay on the floor of her bathroom clinically dead. The 29-year-old’s heart was about as useless and inert as a bowl of jelly.
Minutes before, she had collapsed. Her husband heard her fall and when he couldn’t get her up, he called 911.
About 6:30 a.m., the four men of the Colorado Springs Fire Department’s Engine 17 paramedic team got a call for a “fall patient.” They drove up to the Johnson’s house without lights or sirens, not expecting they had a cardiac-arrest patient on their hands.
Zach Westberg and Damon Davis, veteran paramedics, were on the call.
“She was obviously dead. Just by walking in the room, you could see that,” Westberg recalled months later.
Johnson was in cardiac arrest—her heart had stopped. Davis, Westberg, and their colleagues, P.J. Langmaid and Nick Chapel, took Johnson into her bedroom, where Davis immediately began CPR. As he did manual chest compressions, slamming her sternum with the force of his upper body, Westberg prepared the heavy-duty equipment — drugs and a defibrillator.
Westberg attached the defibrillator, a machine that delivers shocks to the heart, to Johnson’s chest. After three shocks, Johnson’s pulse fluttered. Once the team had her in an ambulance, she started to breathe on her own.
Seven months later, Sara and her husband reunited with Westberg and Davis at the fire department’s annual Celebration of Life, a party that honors local survivors and their paramedic rescuers. In the past five years, the department has had 86 cardiac saves, said Lt. John Aker. Last year, from September 2010 to September 2011, they had 14 survivors. Sara was one of two who attended the gathering Friday night.
There were two main things that kept Johnson alive that night, Westberg told the gathering of nearly 50 people — quick action, and a new protocol, therapeutic hypothermia. After Johnson’s heart started pumping again, the crew used IV fluids to cool her body down, putting her into a hypothermic state that protected her heart and brain tissues from damage. The department was one of the first in the county to start the program two years ago, Aker said.
The taxpayer-funded training and equipment put the department’s success rate, now 12 percent, four points above the national average, Aker said. The morning of the party, paramedics saved a 17-year-old in cardiac arrest, and Aker said he hoped to see him at next year’s gathering.
Surviving cardiac arrest was only part of the ordeal for Johnson, who spent 24 hours in a coma and five days with a pacemaker.
“I don’t remember about a month of my life,” she said.
Johnson, a slender yoga instructor, met Davis and Westberg last fall.
“I brought them a carrot cake, I didn’t know what else to bring them,” she said, laughing.
Johnson, who recently celebrated her 30th birthday, is now perfectly healthy. The attack may have been caused by a lack of potassium in her system, she said. Thanks to the therapeutic hypothermia protocol, she suffered no brain damage, she said.
Johnson was given a necklace with a phoenix charm to celebrate her rebirth. Westberg and Davis received certificates, and a grateful hug from Johnson.
“Thank you for doing what you do everyday,” Johnson told her rescuers. “But thank you for doing it for me.”
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