One minute, Deborah Lander was on her way to a performance at the Lexington Opera House.
The next, she lay dead on the sidewalk.
On that day in February 2012, Lander experienced sudden cardiac arrest, where the heart unexpectedly stops pumping blood to vital organs. About 300,000 Americans have sudden cardiac arrest each year. Only about 10 percent survive.Lander is one of the survivors.
The swift actions of bystanders and the skilled techniques of trained experts at the UK Gill Heart Institute saved her life.
Two strangers saw Lander lying on the ground and performed CPR until an ambulance arrived about 10 minutes later. That was the first important step to keeping her alive.
Next, the ambulance took Lander to the emergency department at UK Albert B. Chandler Hospital, where a cardiac team was waiting. There, doctors performed therapeutic hypothermia on Lander. That process involves using catheters and ice to cool the body to 90-93 degrees Fahrenheit for about 24 hours.
For patients who experience sudden cardiac arrest, much of the damage happens after the heart starts pumping blood again. The rush of blood returning to the brain can cause inflammation and other complications that often result in neurological damage and a slow, challenging recovery. Cooling the body helps it adapt to the return of blood flow.
Because she received immediate CPR and then therapeutic hypothermia at UK, Lander has fully returned to a normal, healthy life. She’s back working as a viola professor at UK and enjoying the local arts scene.
“The whole series of events had to happen for me to recovery properly like this,” Lander said. “I was extremely lucky. They took care of me.”
Lander grew up in Sydney, Australia, where she learned viola and joined the Australian Chamber Orchestra at age 17.
She moved to Lexington after falling in love with the rolling hills of horse country and became the first salaried, tenure-track viola professor in the state. After she moved to Kentucky, she gave up her car and walked almost everywhere.
“I haven’t owned a car in 20 years,” Lander said. “I’ve always tried to be a healthy person. I do my exercise program, walk a lot, try to eat right within reason.”
But, as she noted, sudden cardiac arrest has that name for a reason.
“It can happen to anybody,” Lander said. “There is no warning.”
She doesn’t remember much about the day it happened, which her doctors at the Gill Heart Institute say is fairly normal. Her first memory after waking up at the hospital was seeing her sister who had flown in from London, England, and her mother, who had come from Sydney.
“Coming back to consciousness was a strange thing,” Lander said. “Everybody is crying and happy you’re awake. But you have no memory of what has happened.”
Lander spent 10 days in Chandler Hospital before returning home.
That memory loss appears to be the only lasting effect from her sudden cardiac arrest. Without the use of therapeutic hypothermia at UK, her prognosis could have been much worse.
Patients who are treated swiftly with hypothermia often are able to recover complete brain function, said Alison Bailey, MD, an assistant professor at UK and one of Lander’s physicians at the Gill Heart Institute.
Susan Smyth, MD, PhD, chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Gill Heart Institute, said therapeutic hypothermia has been heralded as one of the most important clinical advances in the science of resuscitation. But despite receiving the highest endorsement from the American Heart Association and other societies, it is still not routinely used in many hospitals. It’s one of the many ways UK HealthCare offers the most advanced treatments to patients.
UK treats about two patients a week with therapeutic hypothermia, which has helped save dozens of lives, Smyth said.
John Gurley, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Gill implanted a defibrillator in Lander in hopes that another sudden cardiac arrest can be prevented. If the device senses an abnormal heart rhythm, it will send an electric shock to return the heart to its normal rhythm.
She will meet with Navin Rajagopalan, MD, her primary Gill cardiologist, every six months to make sure her heart is healthy.
“The doctors at Gill work together extremely well,” she said. “They really work hard to have the best outcome for the patient. I was very impressed by the teamwork at UK.”
Lander also praised the nurses who cared for her during her hospital stay. “They are willing to go above and beyond for anything you could reasonably ask of them,” she said. “Apart from the quality of medical care they give you, which is extremely good, all the nurses as people have been extraordinary.”
Lander is now an advocate for learning CPR. She has returned to teaching viola and exercises regularly.
“I’ve been given an excellent prognosis,” she said. “I’m as active today as the day before this event happened to me. I’ve been told to go out and have a normal life and do what I do.”
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