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Grateful New Kensington patient owes life to EMS crew

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By R. A. Monti
Monday, June 21, 2010

Feb. 12 was supposed to be a day of celebration for Vickie Eckert. She and her boyfriend were going to celebrate their fifth anniversary of dating by going to a Pittsburgh Penguins game.

The morning of the game, Eckert, 43, of New Kensington was outside shoveling snow. When she came back inside, she complained to her boyfriend, Bill Cerniawski, that she had heartburn.

That's the last thing she would say to him before collapsing as a result of cardiac arrest.

When Eckert collapsed, Cerniawski, 54, of Munhall quickly called 911. As he followed the emergency operator's directions for giving CPR, New Kensington Ambulance was on its way.

When the ambulance team arrived less than four minutes later, Eckert wasn't breathing and her heart had stopped.

She was clinically dead.

"When we got there, it didn't seem like her boyfriend was getting anywhere with the CPR, " said Steve Freiberg, an EMT with the New Kensington Ambulance Company. "After assessing the situation, we decided to shock her heart (with a defibrillator). After one shock, we got her back to a normal (beat) rhythm."

Still unconscious, Eckert was flown from Valley High School's parking lot to Allegheny General Hospital, Pittsburgh, where she was put into induced therapeutic hypothermia, or "cooling."

When a patient is "cooled," doctors normally insert an intravenous drip that circulates a cooling agent within the blood.

The fluid cools the blood to a temperature of about 91.4 degrees to keep the patient's brain healthy, according to Dr. Ankur Doshi, head of the Post Arrest Animation Service at AGH and one of the doctors who treated Eckert. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees.

Doshi said the patient would be medically paralyzed, for about 24 hours, to prevent them from unintentionally trying to warm themselves in their altered state.

"When someone's heart stops, their cells continue to live," Doshi said. "If we can get the heart started in time, and we 'cool' the patient, we can hopefully restore normal brain function. Just as the cells are damaged when the heart stops, the cells are also damaged when the heart is started again; 'cooling' helps minimize that damage."

Cerniawski said a hospital representative called him on his cell phone as he was on the way to the hospital. He feared the worst.

"As they started to ask me more and more questions on the phone, I started to realize she was still alive," he said.

Eckert was released from the hospital Feb. 26 and recently returned to work as a nurse at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Oakland.

Eckert said the support among her family and friends was overwhelming.

"I always valued them, but it made me realize even more how important family and friends are," she said. "My family kept me from going through any sort of post-trauma depression."

Eckert and the paramedics who helped save her life were reunited at the May 5 Pittsburgh Pirates game through the "Great Saves" program.

"Great Saves," sponsored by West Penn Allegheny Health System and the Pirates, acknowledges emergency medical personnel and connects them with the people they save.

"The Pirate game was an amazing experience," said Neal McQuaid, a paramedic with New Kensington Ambulance Company who helped revive Eckert. "We usually don't get a follow-up (with a patient), and we hadn't heard much about Vickie since we dropped her off. It was surreal. Last time we saw her, she was in a bad state. Now she's up and talking with us."

"Words can never express how grateful I am for what they did for me," Eckert said. "I'm glad they are getting recognition. It is important for people to know what they (EMS responders) do for the community."

"Those guys did a great job," said Cerniawski about the EMS responders. "The quality of medical care that was given to Vickie was amazing."

According to Doshi, about 100 people have been "cooled" during the last four years at Allegheny General Hospital.

" 'Cooling' a patient increases their chance of survival and normal recovery by 15 percent," Doshi said.

Doshi classifies normal recovery as a patient's being able to go home to their family with minimal brain damage.

The doctor recommends that everyone learn CPR.

CPR seminars are offered all around the community, he said.

"The American Heart Association even offers a kit that will teach you CPR at home," Doshi said. "A situation is never hopeless if someone is preforming CPR."

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