Health care exec's heart stops at the airport

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg, American Heart Association News

Cardiac arrest survivor Kathy Wilson-Gold (center) with her twins, Michael and Megan, when they were young children. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Wilson-Gold)
Cardiac arrest survivor Kathy Wilson-Gold (center) with her twins, Michael and Megan, when they were young children. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Wilson-Gold)

With her suitcase in tow, Kathy Wilson-Gold dropped off her 6-year-old twins, Michael and Megan, at school on a sunny Monday in October, then drove to the airport for a business trip to New Jersey.

The health care executive and registered dietitian's first flight from her home in Oklahoma City to Dallas was smooth. So was her next leg to Philadelphia. After landing, Kathy got a text from a client. Their meeting the next day would end earlier than expected.

So Kathy detoured to the airline's club to see about booking an earlier flight home.

"How do the flights look?" she asked the staff member, Kenwyn Olin.

Then Kathy collapsed.

Kathy hit the floor hard. Olin immediately called 911, then screamed for medical personnel. Right away, three people from outside the club responded: a veteran firefighter, a retired nurse and a German doctor.

Kathy didn't have a pulse. The trio jumped into action.

The firefighter, Todd Prentiss, started CPR as the others looked for an AED. He performed CPR for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, another traveler found Kathy's phone. He dialed the last person she'd called – her husband, Mike Gold. The traveler passed the phone to Olin, who knew both Kathy and Mike because of how often each of their work trips took them through the Philadelphia airport.

Back in Oklahoma, Mike was strapping the kids into their car seats at school pickup.

"Something's wrong with Kathy," Olin said. "Mike, it's bad."

The doctor took the phone and asked if Kathy took medication or used drugs, anything to explain why a healthy 47-year-old would collapse. "No," Mike said.

Then Mike heard a scream. Someone yelled, "I still can't get a pulse." The man dropped the phone.

Meanwhile, someone brought an AED. After three shocks, Kathy had a heartbeat.

EMS personnel arrived and took her to a local ER. Kathy was placed on a ventilator. She had tests done to see if any arteries were clogged. They weren't.

Olin booked flights for Mike to get to Philadelphia. He took off not knowing whether Kathy was alive. The only thing he knew prior to getting on the plane was that his wife had gone 10 minutes without a pulse and had been placed on a ventilator.

As the plane arrived in Dallas for the first leg of his journey to Philadelphia, the pilot came over the loudspeaker.

"We have a medical emergency," he said. "Please let Mike Gold off first."

I've lost her, Mike thought.

But the word had spread about Kathy. Airline employees wanted to help Mike make his connection. "That was a sigh of relief," Mike said.

When he arrived at the hospital, Kathy was in a coma and on a ventilator. Her boss and another executive had a Bible and were praying over her. Mike stayed up all night, talking to her and praying. Being a health care executive himself, Mike thought the odds of a full recovery weren't good. He did, however, have an unusual sense of calm throughout the night because of his faith.

Doctors told Mike that because her heart stopped for 10 minutes, she would likely have brain damage. But an electroencephalogram, or EEG, the next morning looked OK.

She has perfect brain activity, the doctor told Mike.

Kathy woke up. She and Mike rode in an ambulance to a heart hospital where she could get specialized care. During the ambulance ride, Mike was relieved to hear Kathy ask, "How are the twins? Are they OK?"

Doctors said there was no explanation for her sudden cardiac arrest. Still, to prevent another possible event, she received an implantable cardioverter defibrillator. The device picks up on abnormal heart rhythms and can correct them. Four days after the ordeal began, Kathy and Mike left the hospital and flew home.

"I had children to raise," Kathy said. "It was not my day to die."

Kathy Wilson-Gold with her husband and children. From left: Daughter Megan, husband Mike, Kathy, and son Michael. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Wilson-Gold)
Kathy Wilson-Gold with her husband and children. From left: Daughter Megan, husband Mike, Kathy, and son Michael. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Wilson-Gold)

Watching the bag handlers through the plane window, it struck her how quickly "my world stopped and came to a grinding halt." It reminded her how precious life is, even the ordinary.

Recovery was tough. Kathy's body ached and she was exhausted. Slowly, she started doing chores around the house and walking. She resumed her healthy diet and worked up to doing weights and cardio on the treadmill again.

"There's a physical and a spiritual recovery," she said. "It takes time."

The firefighter who'd given her CPR left his number with the airport. Kathy and Mike called to thank him. Five months later, Kathy returned to work.

Three years later, her ICD went off after she'd been exercising. The shock came not from an abnormal heart rhythm but from the device having two faulty leads; they were replaced.

Now, 17 years later, Kathy is on her third device, a typical number given their six- to seven-year life span. Last year she had surgery to repair minor leakage in her mitral valve. Doctors think it was unrelated to her cardiac arrest.

Kathy stayed in the hospital for three days. The day after the valve surgery, she walked the halls of the hospital and up several stairs to begin building up her strength. She takes solace in knowing her defibrillator will notify her electrophysiologist if it detects a problem. She sees her cardiologist twice a year as a precaution.

She now works as a senior nutrition consultant with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Aging, helping create policies and services to improve the lives of older Americans. She's thankful for life and grateful for time with her family.

Over the years, she cheered on her son, Michael, as he played college football and watched her daughter, Megan, a meteorologist in Tulsa, win Miss Oklahoma. "Today I'm great," Kathy said.

Kathy Wilson-Gold with her family. From left: Mike, Megan, Kathy and Michael. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Wilson-Gold)
Kathy Wilson-Gold with her family. From left: Mike, Megan, Kathy and Michael. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Wilson-Gold)

While she travels less now for work, when in Philadelphia, she'll stop by the airline club. "The only reason I'm alive is because I was in the airport that day," she said. At the time, she worked from home, alone. "If I had been home, I would have become a statistic."

She hopes her experience convinces others to "live your day like it's your last – the last time you see your children, your husband, your loved ones. Even if you're healthy, it can be your last day."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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