Debra's Story

Under cardiac arrest

Sudden cardiac arrest survivor Debra Koziol 

Debra Koziol, age 54, of Cranston, Rhode Island, has spent her adult life paying attention to her health by exercising and watching her diet. She had to because in her 20s she’d been diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse—a condition causing her heart to occasionally skip a beat. It turned out that wasn’t true. In August 2006, Debra was sitting on the couch reading a book to her grandson Gustavo when her husband Michael saw her suddenly tip over. Her eyes were open and fixed, so he immediately called 9-1-1 and began CPR.

The paramedics arrived, put Debra on a machine that provided compressions, and intubated her because she wasn’t breathing. For more than 30 minutes she didn’t breathe on her own, which put her at risk for brain damage.

Debra, who was 47 at the time, had experienced a sudden cardiac arrest. That’s a condition in which the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating, which causes blood flow to the brain and other vital organs to cease. To start her heart beating again, she was shocked six times with an automated external defibrillator on the way to the hospital.

At the hospital, doctors put her into an induced coma to allow her heart to rest. Her survival was uncertain.

After three days, Debra began to come out of her coma. It was two weeks before she was strong enough to have open-heart surgery to repair the leaking mitral valve that had strained her heart. Due to complications, it was two months before she could have surgery to implant a cardioverter defibrillator, a device to shock her heart should it ever stop again. "Luckily, it has not gone off," she said. "But I did just have it replaced, as the one I had was recalled. I am doing very well with it."

After her recovery, Debra participated in cardiac rehab and learned more about her condition and how to keep her heart healthy.

She’d always tried to lead a healthy lifestyle, but today she’s more consistent about exercise. "I exercise on a treadmill every day for 60 to 90 minutes," she said. She’s also made important changes to her diet, minimizing saturated fats and carbs.

Today, Debra has no limitations due to her condition, but she’s under the close care of a cardiologist. All four of her heart valves leak, and one section of her heart is slightly enlarged.

Debra’s doctor says that Michael’s quick action and her good health at the time were critical to her survival.

"My doctor told me that I may not have even survived the CPR if my heart hadn’t been as strong as it was," she said.

Debra’s condition never produced symptoms before her heart stopped. That’s why she emphasizes the importance of keeping your heart healthy: It will be better able to withstand an emergency.

"It could be something other than heart disease, but your heart still has to be strong to withstand whatever you’re fighting," Debra said. "I tell women, ‘Hopefully you’ll never be the one in the ambulance, but if you are, how strong do you want your heart to be?’"

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