TERRE HAUTE —
After 72 minutes of relentless efforts to restore his wife’s heartbeat, Josh Halon saw the emergency room doctors give each other “the look.”
Josh knew what that meant. A registered nurse, Josh works in that same facility — Indiana University Health West Hospital in Avon — as director of cardiovascular services. His wife, Becky — a dark-haired, blue-eyed, petite picture of fitness — was also a nurse, in the surgical intensive care unit. They knew the ER well, as caregivers. Now, in a nightmarish dose of irony, Josh and Becky, both just 28 years old, found themselves on the receiving end.
Becky’s heart had stopped beating that day at 10:27 p.m., when she collapsed onto the bathroom floor of their home in Avon. It was now 11:39, and she lay lifeless on an emergency room bed. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation administered by Josh, paramedics and ER doctors had not jump-started her pulse. Neither had 15 — 15 — electrical shocks delivered to Becky’s heart.
That’s when Josh spotted “the look” on the doctors’ faces.
“It’s a look I’ve seen a ton of times in the hospital,” Josh explained, “where they kind of look at you, look at Becky, look at the monitor, look at each other, and start talking about, ‘She’s gone.’
“They started walking toward me, and I cried out, ‘No.’”
That “look” was clearly understandable. One hour and 12 minutes had passed, and Becky’s heart still was not pumping oxygen toward her brain. The doctors reminded Josh of the kind of life Becky likely faced, even if she did resuscitate. They suggested to Josh it might be time to cease the CPR.
“I said, ‘We’re not going to stop, even if we have to go all night and I have to get on the bed and do it myself,’” Josh recalled. “And it was in that moment — literally within 30 seconds — Becky [regained her heartbeat].”
The medical team began hypothermia protocol, cooling her body to 34 degrees Celsius to preserve brain tissues and slow her metabolism. Then, an ambulance sped off toward Indianapolis’ Methodist Hospital, carrying Becky — still alive, incredibly, after 73 minutes without a pulse — through a suddenly uncertain July night on the rocky road to a miracle.
Less than two hours earlier, the situation seemed unimaginable for the Halons.
‘A normal day,’ at first
The first day of July 2010, a Thursday, had been “kind of a normal day,” Josh said. They’d just returned from a trip to Galveston, Texas, where Becky sat watching her 10-year-old daughter, Jacey, compete with her Avon teammates at a jump-rope event. Back home in Indiana, Becky took the kids — Jacey, Owen (3) and Norah (2) — to swim, relax and visit with Becky’s grandmother in Terre Haute. After the drive home, Becky and Josh put the little ones in a stroller and went for an evening jog, a routine for the couple. Typically, they follow a 3-mile path through their neatly kept, suburban neighborhood.
“We got actually halfway through, and Becky was saying, ‘I’m pretty tired. We’re going to have to walk.’ And that was not her,” Josh said. “She’s definitely high-speed, going all the time. So I thought that was a little unusual, but we had just gotten back from vacation, so I thought maybe it was post-vacation fatigue — a taking-care-of-the-kids-all-the-time kind of fatigue, which you’d expect to have.”
Exercise had long been part of Becky’s life. She played soccer at Terre Haute North Vigo High School. Becky came to Terre Haute as a freshman, when her parents — Rusty and Nellie Burrell — and their three daughters moved to town. At 4 feet, 111⁄2 inches tall, Becky “was a tough soccer player,” said her close friend and North classmate, Emily Hendricks Turnier. “She’s always been really tough.”
Still, the jog last July 1 left Becky tired. So, she and Josh walked with the kids the rest of the way home.
That night, they put the kids to bed, and then headed to their own bedroom. Everything seemed OK. “At about 10:30 — 10:27, to be exact — she said, ‘I love you,’ walked into the bathroom, and I heard a loud crash,” Josh remembered. Becky had a habit of stumbling over a wastebasket in the bathroom, and, thinking it had happened again, Josh jokingly said, “Hey, you goofball, you tripped over the trash can.” Becky didn’t answer.
Instead, Josh heard the jarring sound of “agonal breathing,” which is actually a gasping noise made by a person who has suffered a sudden cardiac arrest, caused by a lack of oxygen to the anterior portion of the brain. It’s commonly called “the death rattle.” As a cardiovascular nurse, the sound was familiar to Josh. “It’s one of those things that if you’ve heard it before, you never forget it,” he said.
Josh rushed into the bathroom and found Becky on the floor, eyes open but pupils dilated. He screamed, “Wake up,” at her, then realized that wasn’t going to happen and started CPR.
Josh and Becky learned CPR as nursing students in Terre Haute, where they met in a class at Indiana State University. Ironically, Becky received her certification to teach CPR in June 2010. Josh had performed the lifesaving technique, in which a rescuer compresses the chest and breathes into the mouth of a cardiac-arrest victim to revive the person, or at least delay tissue and brain damage by moving oxygenated blood through the body until full resuscitation occurs.
This time, though, the person in need of Josh’s CPR skills was Becky.
‘Pretty quick’ response
The house was silent, except for sound of Josh compressing Becky’s chest. After a couple rounds of CPR, Josh sprinted downstairs, grabbed his cellphone, dialed 911, bolted back upstairs, put the cell on speaker phone and set it on the floor, and resumed CPR on Becky. “I was just staring into her eyes, pleading for her to wake up,” he recalled. Anxious and distraught, Josh’s patience quickly evaporated. He hollered at the 911 dispatcher, “Where are [the paramedics]? Why are they not here yet?” She answered, “Sir, it’s only been 4 minutes.” Less than 3 minutes later, the crew arrived. (“Pretty quick,” Josh acknowledges now.)
The paramedics took over the CPR, and inserted a breathing tube into Becky. Seeing that she was experiencing ventricular fibrillation (or V-fib), a condition in which the heart ventricles quiver instead of properly contract, they administered electrical shocks to Becky’s heart. The process continued as they sped Becky by ambulance to IU Health West.
Despite the flurry of activity, the children — who hadn’t napped that day — continued sleeping. “I think, by the grace of God, [they stayed asleep], because it would’ve been horrific if they woke up,” Josh said. Becky’s sister, who also lives in Avon, reached the house soon enough to stay with the kids, while Josh headed to the hospital with Becky.
The drama unfolding inside the emergency room overwhelmed Josh. At one point, he broke down in a flood of emotions.
He understood the odds. Just one in 20 people who suffers sudden cardiac arrest survives long enough to reach the hospital, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Five minutes without oxygen can cause permanent brain damage. Becky had seen patients in similarly dire straits in her work as a nurse, and often prayed she herself would never be in that position. “All of her worst fears came true,” Josh said. “She’d say, ‘If I ever get like that, just let me go.’ But they didn’t listen to that.”
In addition to the continual CPR, the shocks, the breathing tube and the 24 hours of hypothermia therapy, Becky also received a balloon pump to support her heart once it resumed beating. After being transferred from IU Health West to Methodist Hospital, she was placed in the intensive care unit for what became a one-month stay. A cardiac defibrillator was implanted in Becky to help sustain her heartbeat.
“For the first 72 hours, we didn’t know what kind of brain function she would have,” said Methodist critical care nurse Michelle Sebben, “or if she would have any at all.” One of the most tense moments came when doctors transitioned Becky out of the hypothermia treatment. As her body warmed, she began shaking in a seizure-like fashion. At that point, Sebben said, “Things didn’t look good at all.”
A muscular irritation turned out to be the cause of the shaking, rather than a neurological problem. “That was a great relief,” said Becky’s father, Rusty Burrell.
A huge turning point came two weeks later.
The breathing tube had been removed and Becky was breathing on her own. Josh stepped out of her room in the ICU and into the hallway to “get a break, which you do in the hospital.” (He’d taken leave from his job to be with his wife around the clock. The kids were being cared for in shifts by the couple’s parents, with support from Becky’s sisters, the Halons’ friends, and their “church family” at New Hope in Avon.) When Josh stepped back into Becky’s hospital room, her parents told Josh that Becky seemed to be waking up and was trying to say something.
He was stunned. “And when I started saying something [to Becky], she said, ‘I’m so thankful to be alive,’” Josh said.
“That’s a true thought, and not just a groan or a moan,” he added. “Then we started realizing things were going to be a little more hopeful.”
Sebben — who’d been caring for Becky since July 2, during her usual 7-a.m.-to-7-p.m., three-day-a-week shifts — stood at the nurses station when Josh ran into the hallway after Becky spoke. “I was crying. Josh was crying. The family was hugging and laughing and crying,” Sebben recalled. “That was one moment I’ll never forget.”
Soon, though, they discovered another complication — Becky was blind. Another “blessing,” as Becky now terms it, was about to happen.
After two weeks without sight, Becky’s vision flickered. A doctor standing beside her bed asked Becky the color of his tie. “Gold,” she answered. The tie was yellow, Josh clarified, but that was close enough. “And it was just miracle after miracle after miracle.”
Six weeks into her rehabilitation, Becky began to walk. She had to relearn other tasks also learned long ago, such as tying her shoes, solving puzzles and typing. Recovery was a mix of elation and frustration for her. She spent a month in the ICU and a month in a rehab hospital before, finally, coming home.
“I remember being able to come home, the first time we drove home in the car,” Becky said. “It was just like being released or something, like you were in prison and you’re released out into the world. It was really a blessing to come home.
“Coming home was hard, too,” she added. “Re-adjusting to taking care of the kids and being home has been a very long road. I’d say now it’s great, but it took a long time to get here, where I’m at now.”
Becky looks like a healthy young woman. During an interview earlier this spring, she sat on the couch inside their living room, reflecting on the events of her life since July 1. Becky spoke clearly and comfortably, getting up occasionally to take turns with Josh entertaining Owen and Norah. She’s fallen several times, though, and climbing stairs remains difficult, especially in a noisy environment. She hopes to regain her ability to drive a car. “My reflexes just aren’t as fast as they used to be,” Becky said.
She continues taking regular physical therapy to restore those functions, and keeps those limitations in perspective. Eight months ago, Becky was essentially dead for 73 minutes.
She remembers only snippets of July 1 — swimming in her grandmother’s pool, loading the kids into the stroller for their jog. Her next memory is riding in the car, weeks later, for a rehab session. Everything in between, all of those heart-wrenching instances, is a blank. No heavenly visions. Neurologists suspect she’ll never recall the events of those harrowing, early days because the center of her brain, where memories are stored, wasn’t functioning.
Nonetheless, those things went on around her. Many involved Josh.
He took two months off work to care for his wife. He rode an emotional rollercoaster. “I declared ‘no-cry days’ like nine days into it, and it was impossible,” Josh said. “Somebody you knew would come in, and you’d break down again.”
Once Becky left the hospital and came home, he hesitantly returned to work at IU Health West. Still concerned about Becky and the kids, he calls frequently to check on them, and she gets help with the kids from family and friends. “When you go through something like this, you have a pretty strong bond,” Josh said.
One moment from the ICU flashed back to Becky, recently. She recalled watching a movie from her bed in the ICU. “I love the movie ‘The Notebook,’ and so my husband played it for me there, and it kind of woke me up a little bit,” she said. “It was kind of a special movie for me and my husband. It kind of connected us. So it just brought back memories of that.”
They met at ISU while working on a group project in a nursing class. Becky already had graduated from Ivy Tech’s nursing program and was continuing her education at Indiana State while working at Union Hospital. Josh came to the campus from Plymouth, Ind., and worked at L.S. Ayres until the post-9⁄11 recession led him to pursue nursing, which led him to Becky.
“She chased me down,” Josh insisted, jokingly, as he sat on their carpeted floor in February, playing with Owen and Norah and their toys.
“That’s what he says,” Becky said from her spot on the couch.
She credits Josh’s perseverance, quick action and refusal to give up the CPR with saving her life. In a recent speech in Indianapolis for the American Heart Association’s “Go Big Red for Women” campaign, Becky recalled when Josh told the doctors to keep trying to revive her. “It was at that moment,” she told the crowd, “as if I heard him and knew he was living out his vow to me, [that] I miraculously stabilized and my severely damaged heart began to beat in a regular rhythm.”
Last month, Becky landed a part-time job as a CPR instructor, and speaks publicly about its importance.
Becky also credits God with her recovery, after going 73 minutes without a heartbeat. Doctors point to the quick intervention, CPR, hypothermia treatment and Becky’s youth and fitness as positive factors in her revival. Otherwise, there is no explanation. “For as long as she was down, no — it’s just a miracle,” Josh said. “Everybody says, really, it’s just a miracle.”
That’s how Sebben sees it. The 27-year-old nurse prayed over Becky while caring for her. “I don’t have any explanation as to how she is alive today,” Sebben said. “It’s just by the grace of God.”
The Halons’ spiritual faith has grown through the experience.
“My faith has definitely gotten deeper,” said Becky, who’s collaborating with her friend, Emily, a journalist, for a book about the saga. “I had strong faith prior to this, and actually was praying religiously for something to happen to me to bring others around me to faith. And then this happened.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.