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Struck by lightning, woman whose heart stopped survived

August 4, 2018

ISLE OF PALMS, S.C. (AP) — Alice Tran sat soaking in the warm beach sun when clouds began to brood above. Drizzle misted. The sky darkened, and soon rain poured down.

Her brother’s family scurried up the Isle of Palms beach along with a thicket of others fleeing the incoming storm. Alice’s longtime boyfriend, Seth Baird, carried a cooler back to their car.

Alice and her 9-year-old sister, Heaven, stayed. Alice would start a dental hygienist program back home in Tennessee in six weeks. She had planned this trip to spend time with her family, and she was determined to enjoy this day, July 7, at the beach.

By the time Seth returned, rain drenched him. Thunder rumbled. Lightning flashed as he joined Alice and her sister in the water.

“It’s getting pretty bad,” he cautioned.

Yet, another family still tossed a football up the beach. A half-dozen others played in the surf at a distance.

“I really hate to drive all this way and not enjoy the beach,” Alice said.

Just then, a boom shattered the sky.

Heaven clamped her eyes shut against a blinding explosion as lightning struck the water. Seth’s mind went dark, a switch flipped.

Then, stillness.

And quiet.

Until Heaven screamed. The sound pierced Seth’s ears and jarred him awake. He tasted salt water. Rain pummeled him. Lifting his head from the water, he turned toward Heaven.

The little girl pointed frantically. Five feet away, face up in the water, 23-year-old Alice floated. Her long black hair splayed over the ocean’s roiling surface.

She did not move.

Through his muddled thoughts, legs wobbly, Seth clambered toward her. Gripping beneath her armpits, he dragged Alice toward the beach. Waves shoved him. Rain pounded. Sand drained beneath his footing.

As his strong arms weakened, Alice’s head dipped. Water reached into her mouth.

“Go to the bag and get a phone! Call 911!” he yelled.

Heaven scrambled away. The race to save Alice was on.

Loud as his weakened body could muster, over the roar of rain and waves, Seth screamed: “Help!”

From the family playing football in the distance, two men sprinted down the beach toward him and helped pull Alice onto the sand.

Seth grasped one slender wrist feeling for a pulse. Nothing.

Her eyes rolled back in her head.

“Do you know CPR?” one of the men asked.

Seth had taken a class more than a year earlier through his job as a mechanical engineer — protocol for those who handled high voltage. He never imagined he’d actually use it, and he remembered very little.

He did, however, recall that chest compressions were the most important part.

Positioning the heels of his palms on her lower sternum, he pressed hard in rapid succession. One of the bystanders breathed into Alice’s mouth. When Seth’s arms quaked with exhaustion, he and the man switched places.

As they did, Heaven found Alice’s cellphone in their beach bag. Jabbing at the numbers, she couldn’t get through the passcode.

The other bystander ran over to help her.

It was 2:54 p.m. A crew of paramedics happened to be four blocks away responding to another call when their radios crackled with this new, more urgent emergency.

One drove his Tahoe onto the beach toward the two men performing CPR. James Brashear and his partner parked the ambulance, grabbed their gear and sprinted down the long stretch of sand.

They clustered around Seth.

“All right, man. I got you,” one said.

Seth stepped back. The first responders took over.

Alice had no pulse, no heartbeat. She was in cardiac arrest. Brashear sat at her head, directing the crew.

Hovering about 8 feet away, Heaven sobbed. A fire commander scooped her up and put her in his pickup. She didn’t need to be right there watching, if her big sister died.

Paramedics shocked Alice with a defibrillator. They shoved a breathing tube down her throat.

With each passing second, Seth felt the slow tick of Alice’s life ebbing away, until someone called out: “I’ve got a pulse!”

The men hoisted Alice onto a backboard and rushed her to the waiting ambulance.

Her condition: unstable and critical.

Brashear stood beside Seth at the ambulance’s back doors.

“You want to go?” he asked.

Seth did, but he shook his head. He couldn’t leave Heaven alone.

The ambulance doors closed.

Traffic choked both routes off the Isle of Palms as beach-goers fled the intense storm. Police moved in to help the ambulance get off the island so it could make the 17-mile journey to Medical University Hospital’s emergency room and the area’s highest-level trauma bay.

Following behind in another ambulance, Heaven sat with Seth in a blanket, clutching a stuffed fire dog. The traumatized child had calmed. Seth tried to mask his fear.

When they finally arrived, MUSC Children’s Hospital staff found that Heaven, while deeply shaken, appeared physically fine. Seth refused treatment.

He needed to find Alice.

Still sandy and wearing his swim trunks, he hurried to the adult ER, where someone led him to a room.

Inside, a chaplain waited.

Seth panicked: Was Alice dead?

Her brother, Stan, and his family gathered with him. So did Alice’s distraught mother, Mary Phan. A Vietnam native, she had just been grocery shopping for a nice family meal that night. Instead, they all waited in tense silence until a team of doctors bustled in, filling the room.

Alice was alive, but she was critically ill. So far, she had not responded to any of their commands. They did not know how much brain damage, if any, she had suffered.

“Only time will tell.”

Alice had joined a band of the few, given anyone’s odds of getting struck by lightning in a year were roughly one in 1 million.

The good news: After suffering cardiac arrest on the beach, Alice’s heartbeat was strong. A lightning bolt can contain 100 million to 1 billion volts, clearly enough to jolt the heart’s electrical rhythm and cause cardiac arrest, a leading cause of death among those struck.

Dr. Todd Gandy, a pulmonology fellow, explained that he would admit Alice to an intensive care unit where she would be placed into a medically induced coma. They would cool her body to help preserve and restore brain function.

“Do you all want to come see her?”

In a somber line, her family followed the team to a room where she lay amid a narrow field of tubes and machines. Clumps of sand matted her hair and coated her body. A breathing tube snaked down her throat. IVs sprouted from her arms.

Seth stepped to the bedside, then leaned down and kissed her, just above her cheek bone. He’d always been told that hearing was the last sense to go.

He whispered, “I love you.”

They couldn’t linger for long, however. The medical team needed to run with the baton of Alice’s fragile life.

About a year earlier, MUSC had begun using a new method of induced hypothermia, which chills the core body temperature of patients resuscitated from cardiac arrest or with head injuries, to preserve brain function. It involved doctors inserting a large catheter into patients’ necks or groins so water could cool their blood as it passed.

In Alice’s case, Dr. Gandy inserted one into her right leg. For 24 hours, he lowered her core to just above 93 degrees Fahrenheit, about five degrees below normal.

In her ICU room, nurses guided a careful dance of cooling and sedation. A technician brushed Alice’s long, tangled hair and braided it so she could tape electrodes to Alice’s scalp. Others wiped sand off her body.

After 24 hours, the medical team began to slowly rewarm her.

As they worked, Alice’s family moved from a rental house to a hotel so they could rotate shifts at her bedside. Each day, they vacuumed up every scrap of news her nurses and doctors could provide.

Each day, the team cautioned: “It’s going to take time.”

For three days, Alice lay in a medically induced coma, a machine breathing for her. Electrodes monitored for seizures. An IV pumped sedation. A big green neck brace held her head still. A white hospital gown with stars and moons covered her thin, motionless body.

Little Heaven climbed into Seth’s lap. The 9-year-old had spent her nights crying, her days worrying that her big sister might never wake up.

“Is it our fault we decided to stay?” she asked.

The question haunted them all.

Seth answered carefully.

“Heaven, sweetheart, it’s not your fault whatsoever,” he assured. “You’re the hero.”

He reminded her that she had woken him in the water and that she’d found the phone to call 911, just like he’d told her to, even though she was so frightened. He didn’t say that, yes, they should have left the beach, or that theirs would become a cautionary tale for others who roll the dice with lightning.

The nurses slowly reduced Alice’s sedation. The only way to gauge her brain function would be to interact with her — and that meant waking her up and seeing if she could breathe on her own well enough to remove the ventilator.

Alice’s family crowded her room, eager for this reckoning.

The medical team started with 30 minutes of watching to see if Alice initiated her own breaths and inhaled well enough. She did, but the doctors still worried. Fluid was building in her body due to her ailing kidneys.

They waited another 24 hours.

The next day, Alice breathed on her own again. However, her breaths came rapidly with the ventilator off, and her heartbeat raced. Her blood pressure shot up. A doctor removed the tube in her throat but ordered oxygen, worried she might need to return to the machine.

Yet, as the sedation ebbed, Alice still breathed on her own. She tried to open her eyes. She turned her head. She nodded. She moved her arms and legs. Little signs that deep inside the wounded brain, at least something of her remained.

Mary prayed at her daughter’s bedside each day, placing a picture of Buddha onto Alice’s forehead as she did so.

Seth, a Christian, also prayed and clung to the hope that Alice could still hear him. He recounted favorite memories of their four-year relationship and his hopes of bringing her home to play games and eat out at new restaurants, which she enjoyed. They would do that again, he promised.

One day, he set his cellphone near her head and played a song. It was “I Like Me Better” by Lauv.

To not know who I am but still know that I’m good long as you’re here with me ...

“Can you hear it?” he asked.

Alice nodded. His heart jumped. It was their song.

“Can you recognize it?”

She nodded again.

Alice was in there, he felt certain. The final leg of the race, the anchor leg, was hers to win. It would be the toughest, though, and she would need to become the fiercest of competitors.

As Alice emerged from the coma, confusion muddied her thoughts. Her kidneys still struggled. She might need dialysis. Her heart rate soared. Her blood pressure spiked.

In a weak voice, she whimpered, “Mommy, I hurt.” Her chest throbbed from CPR trauma.

One day, she woke up enough to ask Mary: “Why did you bring me here?”

Her long-term memories remained mostly intact. But she remembered nothing about coming to Charleston, nothing about the beach, nothing about getting struck by lightning.

Mary peppered her with questions. Who is the president?

“Obama.”

What restaurant did they just go to for her birthday?

Alice couldn’t remember.

As the days passed, physical therapists got Alice to sit up in bed. When they helped her over into a soft chair beside it, her head flopped. Her knees buckled. She grimaced with pain.

Every day, they lugged her out of bed again. Every day, Alice could help them a little more.

Almost 12 days after Alice’s heart stopped, her primary nurse arrived for a shift. Stephanie Pettiet noticed something right off: She could hear Alice’s Tennessee drawl. Where before Alice had sounded so weak, often confused, she seemed much more with it. She even remembered details that Seth had just told her about what happened on the beach.

Alice also wanted to walk.

“I have to get back to school,” she insisted.

Alice worked as a dental assistant and had gotten into a competitive dental hygienist program. Classes started in five weeks. She needed to get home.

Stephanie called a physical therapist who helped Alice get out of bed. On her own, despite pain in her back and chest, Alice stepped with a metal walker across her room and through the doorway. Stephanie followed closely with a chair. Mary followed with a camera.

Alice walked down the entire hall, about 100 feet.

After two weeks in the ICU, she moved to a regular hospital room. She didn’t stay there long. Alice left MUSC for good late last Sunday, 15 days after arriving. She rode in a wheelchair, covered with hospital blankets as her family profusely thanked the doctors and nurses who saved her.

During the seven-hour drive home to Knoxville, she mostly slept, to Seth’s relief. He pulled into their home at 2:30 a.m. and helped her inside. She melted into her own bed. The next day, she showered by herself, scrubbing and rinsing her long black hair.

Her short-term memory remained a struggle. But her classes started in a month, and she was determined to be ready for them.

A new race was on.

___

Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com

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