For most of us, March 22, 2007 was just another day. For Florissant resident Linda Dickson, it was a life changer; and its events will be forever etched into her memory.
Dickson was rushing to a Ladies Guild meeting at after work, stopping to pick up her daughters at her sister's house on the way.
“I had to work that day, and I wasn’t feeling well at work,” she said. “I remember telling everyone at work that I had an extremely bad headache.”
Dickson arrived at the meeting, and her youngest daughter, Victoria, asked her for a sheet of paper. Reaching for the sheet is the last thing she remembers.
She wouldn’t wake up for another day. She had suffered from sudden cardiac arrest.
Reconfiguring the electrical system
Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) is not a heart attack.
According to the Sudden Cardiac Association, a circulation or blockage of the heart causes a heart attack. SCA happens when the heart stops pumping blood, and it’s usually an electrical problem.
Approximately 900 Americans die each day due to SCA and more than 325,000 each year, according to the American Red Cross.
Doctors told Dickson that a virus had attacked her heart, which brought on her case of sudden cardiac arrest.
The Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association reports that it can strike anyone—no matter the age, sex or race, and more than 90 percent of victims die.
Dickson had luck on her side that day.
After the incident, Dickson slumped over in her chair. Fellow Ladies Guild members Diana Williams and Dana Heiserer couldn’t help but notice.
“I thought she was having a seizure because she was jerking a little bit,” Williams said. “I sat down beside her to watch her, and I noticed she wasn’t breathing.”
The women, both nurses by profession, recognized that her heart wasn’t beating and began CPR.
“I’m used to something happening and hitting the button in a hospital room,” Williams said. “It seemed like an eternity for us.”
The women performed CPR for about eight minutes, Williams said, before paramedics arrived. They shocked Dickson twice before her heart restarted.
Paramedics rushed Dickson to the emergency room before she was transferred to Mercy Healthcare in Creve Coeur. There she was placed in the intensive care unit and remained in a coma for a day.
When Dickson woke up, she had no short-term memory. She soon regained it and slowly but surely, bounced back with a new purpose and lease on life.
Following her SCA diagnosis, doctors placed an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) device to monitor Dickson's heart rhythms and any irregularities. The ICD sends electrical shocks to the heart if needed.
On a mission
Dickson’s ICD may keeps her heart going, but her new mission drives everything else.
For the past three years, Dickson has worked with other SCA survivors in St. Louis to educate people about sudden cardiac arrest.
“We wanted to get more information out there about sudden cardiac arrest because everyone knows what a heart attack is, and everyone always thought I had a heart attack,” she said.
Dickson also had a hand in founding and leading the Gateway Chapter of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, which started in January 2010. The group advocates for more education about sudden cardiac arrest and the need to get more automated external defibrillators (AEDs) into public places.
“We’re just a chapter of a big organization, and we’re just trying to raise awareness of what sudden cardiac arrest is,” Dickson said. “We’re trying to get AEDs out in the public because in my case, if there had been an AED at Sacred Heart at that time, those two nurses would have known how to use it… I probably would have woke right up.”
AEDs are lightweight devices that, once placed on a person’s chest, can analyze a heart rhythm and determine if an electrical shock would be necessary to restore a normal heart rhythm.
“I want AEDs everywhere,” Dickson said. “I want them within a minute of anybody who might a sudden cardiac arrest because we could save so many more people.”
Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association has worked to get more AEDs into public places and fundraises to help nonprofit groups or organizations obtain them.
Currently, the group has had success in placing two AEDs in churches in the metro St. Louis area: at a church in South St. Louis County and a Montessori school in Illinois.
The heartbeat of Florissant
Dickson has made a big impact on the City of Florissant and the state of Missouri.
Last month, Dickson received a proclamation from Florissant Mayor Tom Schneider for her work in bringing the sudden cardiac arrest issue to public attention. He also assured Dickson and residents that AEDs are available in all Florissant Police Department cars.
“She’s definitely a good advocate for sudden cardiac arrest,” Williams said.
Gov. Jay Nixon also declared October as sudden cardiac arrest awareness month for the state.
Dickson hasn’t had any problems with her heart since the incident more than four years ago and has continued to be monitored by her doctors.
It doesn’t look like she has any plans to slow down anytime soon.
“I want Florissant to be the first city to be super-trained in CPR,” she said. “I want more people to have amazing stories,” she said. “We could save more people if we get AEDs and learned CPR, I’m living proof of that.”