A health manager’s heart stops at the airport

Credit: Kathy Wilson-Gold

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

The health manager and registered dietitian’s first flight from her home in Oklahoma City to Dallas went smoothly. Ditto for her next leg to Philadelphia.

After landing, Kathy received a text message from a customer. Their meeting the next day would end earlier than expected.

So Kathy made a beeline for the airline club to see if she could book an earlier flight home.

“How are the flights?” she asked staff member Kenwyn Olin.

Then Kathy collapsed.

Kathy hit the ground hard. Olin immediately called 911 and then yelled for medical personnel. Three people from outside the club responded immediately: an experienced firefighter, a retired nurse and a German doctor.

Kathy had no pulse. The trio went into action.

Firefighter Todd Prentiss began CPR while the others searched for an AED. He performed CPR for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, another traveler found Kathy’s phone. He called the last person she called – her husband, Mike Gold.

The traveler handed the phone to Olin, who knew both Kathy and Mike because they often went through the Philadelphia airport on business trips.

Back in Oklahoma, Mike strapped the kids into their car seats to pick them up from school.

“There’s something wrong with Kathy,” Olin said. “Mike, it’s bad.”

The doctor picked up the phone and asked if Kathy was on medication or on drugs to explain why a healthy 47-year-old would collapse. “No,” said Mike.

Then Mike heard a scream. Someone yelled, “I still can’t feel a pulse.” The man dropped the phone.

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

Paramedics arrived and took her to the local emergency room. Kathy was put on a ventilator. She had tests done to see if arteries were clogged. They weren’t.

Olin booked flights for Mike to get to Philadelphia. He set out without knowing if Kathy was still alive.

All he knew before boarding the plane was that his wife had lost a pulse for ten minutes and was on a ventilator.

As the plane arrived in Dallas for the first leg of its trip to Philadelphia, the pilot chimed in over the loudspeaker.

“We have a medical emergency,” he said. “Please release Mike Gold first.”

I lost her, thought Mike.

But Kathy had got around. Airline employees wanted to help Mike connect. “That was a sigh of relief,” Mike said.

When he got to the hospital, Kathy was in a coma and required ventilation. Her boss and another senior executive had a Bible and were praying for her. Mike stayed up all night talking to her and praying.

Mike, who is a healthcare worker himself, believed the odds of a full recovery were not good. However, due to his belief, he experienced an unusual sense of calm throughout the night.

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

She has perfect brain activity, the doctor told Mike.

Kathy woke up. She and Mike took an ambulance to a heart hospital where she could have special treatment. During the ambulance ride, Mike was relieved when Kathy asked, “How are the twins?” Are they okay?”

Doctors said there was no explanation for her sudden cardiac arrest. However, to prevent another possible event, she received an implantable cardioverter defibrillator.

The device detects cardiac arrhythmias and can correct them. Four days into the ordeal, Kathy and Mike left the hospital and flew home.

“I had kids to raise,” Kathy said. “It wasn’t my day to die.”

As she watched the baggage handlers through the plane window, she was struck by how quickly “my world stopped and came to a complete standstill.” It reminded her how precious life is, even the ordinary.

The recovery was tough. Kathy’s body ached and she was exhausted. Slowly she began doing chores and going for walks. She resumed her healthy diet and returned to training with weights and cardio on the treadmill.

“There’s a physical and mental recovery,” she said. “It takes time.”

The firefighter who revived her left his number at the airport. Kathy and Mike called to thank him. Five months later, Kathy returned to work.

Three years later, her ICD triggered after playing sports. The shock was not from an abnormal heart rhythm but from the device having two faulty leads; they have been replaced.

Now, 17 years later, Kathy is using her third device, a typical number given her six to seven year lifespan. Last year she had surgery to fix a small leak in her mitral valve. The doctors assume that there was no connection with her cardiac arrest.

Kathy stayed in the hospital for three days. The day after the valve surgery, she walked the hallways of the hospital and up several flights of stairs to begin building her strength.

She takes comfort in the knowledge that her defibrillator will notify her electrophysiologist if it detects a problem. As a precaution, she sees her cardiologist twice a year.

Today, she serves as the senior nutritionist with the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging, helping to develop policies and services to improve the lives of older Americans. She is thankful for life and grateful for the time with her family.

Over the years, she cheered on her son Michael while he played college football and watched her daughter Megan, a Tulsa weather forecaster, win Miss Oklahoma. “I’m doing great today,” Kathy said.

While she now travels less for work, she will stop by the Airline Club in Philadelphia. “The only reason I’m alive is because I was at the airport that day,” she said.

At that time she worked alone from home. “If I had been at home, I would have become a statistic.”

She hopes her experience will convince others to “live your day like it’s your last — the last time you see your kids, your husband, your loved ones.” Even if you’re healthy, it may be your last be day.”

Written by Deborah Lynn Blumberg.

If you care about heart health, please read studies about it The best time to take vitamins to prevent heart diseaseand scientists are finding out how COVID-19 damages the heart.

For more information on heart health, see recent studies of aspirin linked to a higher risk of heart failure and the results showing this drug may reduce heart disease, fatty liver and obesity.

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