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Life After Cardiac Arrest: Surviving My Intern Year

By Dr. Samantha Fernandez Hernandez

“This cannot happen… I just started my career. Open your eyes. Move your fingers. Wiggle your toes. Do anything you can to let them know you’re ok!” These are the things I said to myself as I heard the commotion around me. As I felt the excruciating pain of the freshly inserted chest tube between my ribs, I heard someone say, “She might need to go on ECMO, let’s call the team.”

I remember telling myself in that moment, “Keep trying! This will not happen today. Just move your fingers or open your eyes.” Although I tried to stay awake, I felt myself drifting off to sleep. And just like that, I opened my eyes…

On December 3, 2020, six months into my intern year of residency, I suffered a cardiac arrest. What makes this story more special is that it was my very own institution’s faculty and residents who saved my life. I had gone in for an elective laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Minutes into the procedure, I went into respiratory arrest for about 15 minutes, which culminated in pulseless electrical activity (PEA) for about two minutes. Fortunately, I was extubated that night, was able to talk on the phone with my husband, family, and friends hours later, and was discharged home the following week. My doctors (attendings and residents), program leadership, and co-residents provided me not only the best care possible, but prioritized and helped me to focus on my mental health as I began to navigate the path of survivorship.

My husband and me a day after my arrest

It had already been a challenging time. I was in a different country, away from my family in Mexico, and training during a pandemic. Only my husband could visit me during my hospital stay, as we were in the middle of our second COVID-19 surge in Houston, Texas, and hospital visitor policies were strict. However, I was fortunate to be surrounded by others who cared and who could visit me while I recovered in the hospital. Calls, messages, visits, and overall encouragement from my co-residents helped me more than I could have predicted. The program directors and chief residents showed me endless support. The chairman made sure I focused solely on my recovery and didn’t worry about me returning to training during this time. At a time when feeling alone and isolated if you were sick had become the norm for many, I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who cared. My residency program became like family to me through this experience.

My husband and me on a bike ride in Vail, CO
My 30th birthday with one of my best friends (also an IMG)

I had first arrived to the United States in 2013 as a freshly graduated medical student. Shortly after I got here, I found a job as a research coordinator at my current institution, in the neurosurgery department. During this time, I began to fall in love with the brain and anything related to it; I was exposed to a whole new world of pathologies and different health care systems like I had never seen before. I started forming friendships that have now lasted several years. I learned from so many different cultures, as I was lucky enough to be in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the United States. I even met my now husband!

Houston quickly felt like “home” after the first few years of living here. The southern hospitality that everybody talks about charmed me from day one; the excitement of the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, with its infamous barbeque cook-off, and the way the entire city came alive during the Super Bowl LI in 2017. Houstonians are always ready to help their neighbor, even if that means jumping on a kayak to go rescue people stuck on their roofs during a deadly flood (i.e.; Hurricane Harvey), or tirelessly working at the shelters to help those who had lost everything.

Even though Houston had become my home, it was not easy to be away from my family after my cardiac arrest. Luckily, my mom was in town for my surgery, but I knew my father and brother felt terrible that they could not fly to Houston to see me. COVID-19 cases continued to rise, and the last thing they wanted to do was expose my slowly healing heart to a deadly virus. On the day of my hospital discharge, the Pfizer vaccine was finally approved for emergency use, and our hospitals would be some of the first to receive it. It was a very exciting day for me and my co-residents and colleagues. We knew very little of this novel vaccine, but we knew it could prevent severe illness due to SARS-CoV-2.

At that time, I had an important decision to make. Should I put this new vaccine into my very vulnerable, recovering body, with potential side effects, or go back to work and expose myself to a virus that could potentially be fatal for me given my health concerns? After a lot of research, consulting with the experts at my institution, and discussing it with my husband, we decided that getting the vaccine was the safest option for me—and it truly was.

My little family on my wedding day (seven months post-arrest!)

A month after my cardiac arrest I was back to work, still navigating the nuances of my intern year, in a new world where we now had some hope of preventing severe COVID-19. I spent the next several months juggling work, a pandemic, and survivorship. My rotations at the hospital where I arrested were the hardest. Every time a code blue was called on the overhead, I would relive the experience. At times, I would burst into tears under my PPE, and find reasons to excuse myself so that nobody would witness my panic attacks. I was on full-time survival mode. In the halls, I would often see one of the many faces that saved me. When I had a patient in arrest, I would execute the breathing exercises that my therapist taught me, and put my emotions aside in order to give them the best chance at recovery.

Girls night with some of my co-residents

I always considered myself a very empathetic person, but the degree of empathy I now felt for my patients was incomparable. Knowing exactly the fear that they are experiencing, the desperation of not having control over your own body, not knowing if you will even survive this moment, made me the most empathetic doctor I could have possibly become. My arrest changed me completely. It has given me a greater purpose in life and as a physician. It sets the tone for the kind of physician I will be each day. Every day as I put my layers of PPE on, and leave fear behind, I remind myself of my newfound purpose, to “Be the kind of doctor you would want for yourself if you were dying… and do this for every single patient.”