by Lois M. Collins
Bridgette McDonald believes she’s alive because of a series of little miracles.
The 40-year-old Delta Air Lines flight attendant was sitting in the jump seat during takeoff on a flight to New Orleans May 21 when she slumped over. The first miracle was another attendant, Darla Crook, was in the jump seat next to her, which doesn’t usually happen.
When Crook laid McDonald on the floor of the plane, she discovered no pulse, no respiration. She notified the captain and used the overhead speakers to ask for any physician or nurse on board to come forward.
An Intermountain Health Care nurse, Karen Winters of Cottonwood Hospital, answered the call first, followed by Brett Hayes. Hayes, who had completed nursing school, had been studying for his boards when he heard the page. He has since passed the tests and works as a registered nurse at LDS Hospital.
The duo started cardiopulmonary resuscitation on McDonald. But it soon became clear that wouldn’t be enough, so Hayes asked if they had an automated external defibrillator on board.
It was another small miracle. The defibrillator had only been placed on that plane the night before. Since McDonald’s collapse, however, Delta has been fitting all its planes with the device.
Unfortunately, McDonald was the only member of the crew then trained to use it. And she was, at that moment, in full cardiac arrest.
An off-duty flight attendant, Kirk Stafford, who was flying home, started to attach the device. Meanwhile, Winters’ husband Steve, a sheriff’s deputy, took over compressions so his wife could finish attaching the lines to McDonald’s chest. Between them, Stafford and Winters figured out how to work the machine.
All this was happening in the narrow aisle of the plane while the cockpit crew was returning to the Salt Lake airport. The pilot dumped fuel to lighten the load for an emergency landing. When they started to land, the small band of rescuers had to hang onto each other, McDonald and neighboring seats to keep from sliding as the plane descended.
The defibrillator is pretty self-contained, according to Winters. Once it’s attached to the patient, it evaluates the pulse and decides whether to deliver a shock. In McDonald’s case, the heart was in ventricular fibrillation, vibrating rather than beating.
"It quivers and pumps nothing," Winters said.
The first shock sparked several beats, then McDonald’s heart reverted to fibrillation. A second shock converted the heart to a regular rhythm, which it maintained until after the plane landed.
It was a first for Winters and Hayes, who, though thoroughly trained in CPR and advanced life support, had never had to use the skills. And certainly not on a plane, where "no one can come from anywhere to help you," Winters said.
Without CPR and defibrillation, McDonald would have died before the plane landed. Even then, the future didn’t look very bright for her.
She was in LDS Hospital for nine days, during which time she got an implantable automatic defibrillator and a pacemaker. Doctors told her that the kind of cardiac arrest she had is not uncommon. In fact, about 700 Americans die each day from it. The American Heart Association estimates that in the greater Salt Lake area, about 850 people each year experience the condition, which can be brought on by heart attack, respiratory arrest, electrocution, drowning, choking and trauma, among other things.
And anyone can be a "small miracle" in such a medical emergency, said Joy Erickson, spokeswoman for the local American Heart Association. All they have to do is learn CPR.
The association is celebrating "National CPR Saturday" Sept. 25 by hosting free CPR training. And the public is invited. The classes will be held from noon to 5 p.m. at the Highland Park Elementary, 1738 E. 2700 South in Salt Lake City. A certificate of completion will be given, but not professional certification. Registration is required and can be made by calling 484-3838.
As for McDonald, she’s fine. Monday, she’ll return to work for the first time since her cardiac arrest. "She must have had a mission in life that we don’t know about," said Karen Winters. "She was obviously meant to be here, because all those things came into play and now she’s all right."