Linda Dickson never considered herself a philosopher. But in March 2007, she was hospitalized. Lucky to be alive — and lucky to have a memory — she pondered her near-death experience.
"I wondered, what's my purpose?" she said. "Why did I survive?"
Regular visits to a gym helped to maintain her body and gave her the stamina to keep up with her two pre-teen daughters.
So why did she black out and wind up on the floor of her church, her heart not beating, with one registered nurse compressing her chest and another administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?
Dickson had suffered a sudden cardiac arrest — when the heart simply stops beating.
Cardiac arrest differs from a heart attack.
A heart attack occurs when a blocked blood vessel harms the heart muscle. It's more common as people age. Often there are warning signs of numbness and pain.
Cardiac arrest occurs when the electrical signal that makes the heart beat stops and must be restarted by an electric shock. It happens to healthy children, adults, older people, even elite athletes. There are no warning symptoms.
The nurses administered CPR to Dickson for more than seven minutes, well past the four minute danger zone when oxygen deprivation could cause brain damage.
Paramedics arrived, shocked her heart back to work, and got her to St. John's Mercy Heart and Vascular Hospital.
Her doctor implanted a small defibrillator in her chest. It fires if her heart stops.
"It's my new best friend; it goes everywhere with me," Dickson said.
Dickson was in a coma for part of the five days she was hospitalized. Then she spent time trying to regain her short-term memory. And she dodged permanent brain damage.
She learned that she had myocarditis, a virus, much like her heart catching a cold. She didn't have the other suspected causes of cardiac arrest — family history, a history of heart attacks.
A bigger jolt was learning that less than 5 percent of victims survive cardiac arrest.
"I could have died at 36," she said. "It makes me value the time I have; my two daughters, being a mom, a wife. ... I'll be able to see their graduations, their weddings, my grandchildren."
In mid-2009, Dickson found a direction to repay the fates for allowing her to survive. T he American Red Cross brought together some cardiac arrest survivors for a CPR awareness activity. They shared stories and decided St. Louis needed to know more.
Dickson volunteered to spearhead the effort to form a local chapter of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, to help save lives through education.
The Gateway Chapter champions the use of automated external defibrillators, or AEDs.
More people survive cardiac arrest when there's an AED available, someone who knows how to use it and people who know CPR, Dickson said.
An AED is a portable version of the "code blue" crash carts dramatized on TV.
The modern devices do most of the work after the two adhesive pads are placed on the person's chest and the machine is turned on.
The AED's computer detects whether a heartbeat exists. If not, it sends a jolt of electricity to restart the heart.
The American Heart Association reports that the 5 percent survival rate jumps as high as 40 percent when AEDs are available.
Dickson's group sends people who represent companies and agencies to the Red Cross which helps buy AEDs and provides training, Dickson said.
The devices cost about $1,500 for a basic machine to about $3,000.
Dana Garner, head of AED program services for the American Red Cross in St. Louis, said her agency has helped businesses and organizations place 1,000 AEDs in shopping malls, the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, and businesses since 1999. The current target is churches, Garner said.
Dickson's group also reaches out to cardiac arrest survivors.
Survivors must deal with confusing emotions, such as survivor guilt, Dickson said. Then, there's that near-death experience.
"They need to talk to people who have had the same experience," she said.
As for Dickson, "All my heart functions have come back and I have no long-term damage," she said. "It could have damaged my heart enough to go on a transplant list, but I think because of my age and I was healthy, I recovered quickly — one of the lucky ones.
"But mostly because there was someone in the room who knew CPR."