This ejo is about a few people. It’s about a wonderful young man called Daniel, and an extraordinary woman called Claudia. And it’s about you. Or, at least, it could be.
Let me tell you a story. On Wednesday, 4th May 2016 Daniel and Claudia were playing a league soccer game in Los Angeles. Whilst running around the field, Daniel 26, fell to the ground and didn’t get back up again. He had suffered a full cardiac arrest, and his heart just stopped beating. He was technically dead for three to four minutes. Despite dying on the soccer pitch that Wednesday afternoon, Daniel cheated death and is (amazingly) alive today. And the reason he’s alive is thanks to his team mate, Claudia.
A medical student, Claudia jumped into action, using cardio-pulmonary resuscitation to keep his heart beating and air circulating in his lungs for a full 20 minutes, until the ambulance arrived (why the ambulance took so long is another story, luckily). When the paramedics finally did get there, they administered electric shocks to get his heart pumping on its own again and when he arrived at Emergency they immediately placed him into an ice bath for 24 hours, inducing hypothermia in order to prevent further neurological damage. He was in a coma, and his family didn’t know if he was ever going to wake up.
Just to change the topic for a second, David and I are having our bathroom re-tiled. It’s been quite the arduous process, but that’s fodder for a whole other ejo. This morning one of the workers and I had a chat over coffee and he asked me why we don’t have any kids. Unlike some women, I am never offended when someone asks me this, particularly because I live in a culture where having children is just expected. I explained why David and I decided not to have kids, and the worker very sweetly said something along the lines of, “Oh, what a shame. Having children gives you pure love.” I wanted to tell him that I knew exactly what he meant. But we’d finished our espressos, and he had tiles to grout.
So, how could I possibly know the love that children bring? I don’t have any of my own and I’m not even an auntie (not an actual one, anyway). But I can categorically say that the compartment of my heart reserved for the love I would feel for my own children – that unconditional, overwhelming, I’d-do-anything-for-them kind of love – was unseamed about 18 years ago when I embarked on an adventure that changed me as a person.
In August 1998, I went to the US to work as an au pair for a year. I was responsible for looking after two beautiful children – an eight year old boy and a five year old girl. I was 27 years old and I’d been attentively listening to the tick of my biological clock becoming louder and louder. I figured that looking after a couple of kids for a year would be good “practise” for when I actually became a mother myself. Little did I realise that 12 months of being involved in these little people’s lives on an intimate, daily basis would not just be great practise for motherhood, it would actually end up usurping any desire to have offspring of my own. Over the course of that year, those children became my kids. No, not biologically. And not legally. But emotionally…. I might as well have given birth to them. I wasn’t their mother – they already had an amazing one. But they were still, somehow, my babies. I’m not sure it makes sense, and it doesn’t really need to. I never had children of my own for a myriad of reasons, but one of the major ones is that those two youngsters unlocked my heart and gave me the gift of pure and unconditional love.
That entire family is still in my life, 18 years later. And those kids grew up and became my friends. I went from dressing them for school and making them brush their teeth, to having dinner and cocktails with them, talking and laughing til the wee hours of the morning. I consider myself incredibly lucky.
Which is why when his father emailed me to tell me that Daniel had suffered a heart attack I felt eviscerated. Like someone had taken my guts and pulled them away from my body. I felt something I’ve never experienced before. A tangible, and physical, connection drawing me to another human being. Pulling me towards Daniel. I figured it was anxiety, as it was accompanied by an intense and pressing urge to be with him (which was, of course, understandable). I tried to ignore it but it only got worse. I tried to reason with myself that I couldn’t do anything to help him, but that didn’t diminish the feeling. When I did make the decision to go and be with him, the relief was enormous. It was absolutely the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. I was able to get seven days off work, though the 16 hour flights meant I could only spend five days in LA. But it was better than nothing, and so I jumped on the next plane.
In the time it took me to get to LA, Daniel had progressed (slightly) from being in a coma to being in a minimally responsive state. He was no longer vegetative and unresponsive. He had moments of consciousness, though they were intermittent and inconsistent. But he was awake.
When I arrived at the hospital he was asleep, engulfed by machines monitoring his vital signs. A few hours later when he woke up he looked at me, his eyes widening in childlike recognition. With a delighted smile he asked, “What are you doing here?” and my heart melted. Tears welled up in my eyes, but I fought them back. I longed to gather him in my arms and reassure him that everything was going to be OK, as I would have done when he was eight years old. Instead, I told him I was just paying him a visit, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Over the next five days there were times when he showed improvement, but there were also days when I saw him get markedly worse. On the most awful day, he never even woke up. He just kept kicking his arms and legs uncontrollably. My mind couldn’t help but go to very dark places. Places in which he would never recover. But then, the next day, he would be sitting up and chatting with the nurses. It was a hellish rollercoaster and one that I would never wish on any parent. The anguish I experienced was indescribable. I can’t imagine the despair that his parents and sister must have felt.
Leaving him on my final day to go the airport was hard. He was awake but not really aware that I was there, so saying goodbye was painful and felt incomplete. But there was no longer any reason for me to be there. He was going to make it. His family was by his side and he was under the care of top medical professionals. I cried into his sister’s shoulder, and she comforted me. I found it hard to let her go.
Two months have passed since then and Daniel’s progress has been good. He is walking, going to the bathroom and eating on his own. His cognitive function has taken a beating, but he is in therapy and rehab to help him get better.
I keep wanting to say the word “miracle” to describe Dan’s experience. But that’s definitely not the right word. Daniel is alive, and recovering, solely because a girl called Claudia knew how to do CPR. It’s as simple as that. And really, this ejo is dedicated to her. Because she saved Dan’s life. And that is a monumental thing to have done. Thank you, Claudia.
You don’t have to be a doctor in training to learn the techniques that saved Daniel’s life, and the lives of so many others. All you have to do is enroll in a first aid course to learn how to do CPR. That is all. And to show my eternal gratitude to Claudia, someone I’ve never met and probably never will, I am pledging to sponsor anyone who wants to do a CPR course. That’s my way of paying forward the gift that she gave me. The gift of a world in which Daniel is still here.
So if you’ve ever thought about doing it, now’s the time. Do a basic first aid course, email me a copy of the (dated) certificate and I’ll reimburse you the full cost of the course. This pledge is good for perpetuity (or until I go broke, whichever comes first). David and I are enrolling to do a course here in Dubai, and it’s my wish that as many people as possible learn how to do CPR. Because we never know when a friend is going to drop dead in front of us. And wouldn’t it be great to know how to bring them back to life?