Kathi Miles is a living testament to the value of CPR training, defibrillators, luck and love.
The Orcutt grandmother is among only 10 percent of sudden cardiac arrest patients to survive an attack. She celebrates her son’s September birthday as her "re-birthday," and encourages everyone to learn CPR, get over their fear of defibrillators and step up for the good of those around them.
“Anything can happen to any of us at any time," Miles said. "Look around. AEDs, automated (external) defibrillators, are in stores, schools, all around. I’d like to see them in more places, and I’d like people to not be afraid to use them. They’re very simple, easy to use. Any child who can read and follow direction can operate one. They talk you through it, step by step.”
Miles’ life nearly ended one September day in 2010 after a morning spent on the sidelines watching her grandchildren play soccer. She had company in town, and a full slate of activities planned, including a birthday celebration for her son, Montecito Fire Department Battalion Chief Travis Ederer.
After the hot morning on the field, each returned to their respective Orcutt homes to freshen up before Ederer’s birthday lunch.
“As she was heading back out to the truck, she just said, ‘I feel dizzy,’ and, boom! She just dropped dead, really. It was so shocking,” recalled her husband, Craig Gibson.
He called Ederer, who lives just over a mile from their place, and 911.
“It was something that was just so shocking. I should have known to start doing CPR,” Gibson said.
Miles had experienced a sudden cardiac arrest.
Unlike heart attacks, in which blood flow to part of the heart is blocked, a sudden cardiac arrest results in complete cessation of the heart rhythm.
According to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation, 326,200 people experience EMS-assessed out-of-hospital nontraumatic sudden cardiac arrest and nine out of 10 victims die each year.
“This is more than the number who die from Alzheimer's, assault with firearms, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, diabetes, HIV, house fires, motor vehicle accidents, prostate cancer and suicides combined,” the foundation reported.
Sudden cardiac arrests can happen in people who appear healthy and have no known heart disease or other risk factors. They are the No. 1 cause of death for student athletes during exercise, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
When bystanders intervene by giving CPR and using AEDs before emergency medical services arrive, survival rates increase to 40 percent, according to the foundation.
“It’s so shocking. It’s like you turn a switch and, boom, the person’s dead," Gibson said. "That’s why so many people don’t know what happened. It happens to young children, adults, old people. The important thing is to have AEDs in public places.”
When her son arrived minutes later, Miles wasn’t breathing. Her heart was no longer beating. She had managed to sit in the truck, with her head cocked to one side as if she were sleeping.
“When I saw her, my first thought was just, ‘Oh. That’s not good,’” Ederer recalled.
He parked so his children wouldn’t see what was going on as he and Gibson pulled Miles out of the car and began CPR, years of training and practice and emergency experience clicking in to play.
An ambulance crew took over, shocked her heart, ran IVs and intubated her.
“I wasn’t super optimistic,” Ederer recalled.
Immediate hospital care, the implantation of an internal defibrillator and recovery have done the trick for Miles.
“When she started coming around, we didn’t know what would be there. Would she ever talk? Walk? She was close to that time limit being met,” Ederer said.
In fact, she came back with no memory of the three days leading up to the event, but she knew everyone in the room. Today, she finds some memories entirely erased, while others survived the incident.
“It changes your life," Miles said. "It makes you really appreciate things, even more so. It makes me not like to be alone. It makes me hyper-vigilant about any little quirk, anything my heart does. I’ve always been sensitive to heat, but now I’m really careful.”
But she works hard to continue forging ahead on adventures with her husband to visit family, friends or explore nature’s beauty.
“I’m determined not to let it hamper me,” Miles said.
“She’s very lucky. It was all very serendipitous,” Ederer said.
“If Travis hadn’t been so close, I wouldn’t be here today,” Miles said.