Revived by CPR after suffering a cardiac arrest at age 24, St. Petersburg, Florida, resident Brittany Williams has made it her mission to certify others in the lifesaving procedure.
In 2014 Brittany Williams searched the internet to find out why the left side of her body went numb. She was surprised to learn that it could be a sign of stroke, heart attack or cardiac arrest.
Working two jobs at the time, she suspected stress was the most likely culprit. After all, she was only 24, ran about five miles per day and ate a healthy diet.
“I was doing everything they tell you to do at a young age,” Williams said.
But just a few days later, during a family trip to New York City to see the holiday lights, Williams lost consciousness at a restaurant. Two ophthalmologists happened to be nearby. Unable to detect a pulse, they immediately started CPR.
Within minutes, paramedics arrived and used an automated external defibrillator to shock her heart back into a normal rhythm. She only remembers hearing her parents praying and repeating her name. “We love you,” they said. “Do not leave us.”
Placed in a medically induced coma, Williams woke up two days later in the hospital, surrounded by nurses and her parents. They explained that she had suffered a cardiac arrest.
“I was just kind of in disbelief,” she said. “Why me?”
Doctors diagnosed Williams with a heart rhythm disorder called Long QT syndrome and implanted an internal defibrillator and pacemaker to monitor her heartbeat. If she had another event, the device would shock her heart back into a normal rhythm.
She would know if it happened, the cardiologist told her, because it would feel like a horse kicked her.
“I was actually nervous to even go on a walk or go upstairs or just anything because I had such fear that it would shock me,” Williams said. “The first few months were really hard.”
Before she left the hospital, doctors asked if she would meet with several families of other cardiac arrest survivors. Because she was recovering so well, they felt she might give them hope.
“I knew right then and there that I had to make it my mission to spread awareness of heart disease and how important CPR really is,” she said.
Upon returning to her home in Florida, she made good on her vow, doing TV spots and attending numerous CPR training events, including the American Heart Association’s Hands-Only CPR Relay in Manhattan’s Times Square. All told, dozens of hospital staffers and about 700 people participated, establishing a new Guinness Book of World Records title for the most people to learn the technique in one place.
As a bonus, she met the ophthalmologists who performed CPR on her, presenting them with an award for rescuing her.
“I was able to hug them and thank them for saving my life,” Williams said. “It was an emotional but special moment.”
A few months after the event, the chief of the New York City Fire Department invited Williams to a “second chance” luncheon to celebrate first responders. There, she also met the first responders who shocked her heart back into rhythm. She has since stayed in touch, texting them on holidays and the anniversary of her cardiac arrest. One of them attended her wedding.
Now 32, Williams continues to promote CPR and educate others about heart disease. Her message? Know your numbers, adopt a healthy lifestyle and advocate for yourself if you feel like something is wrong — no matter your age.
“I’m thankful I’m here and able to share my story and spread awareness that heart disease does not discriminate,” she said. “I just feel so lucky and blessed.”
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