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July 15, 2011

Nurse recites tale of cardiac arrest

TERRE HAUTE — Watching her prepare for a presentation inside Oakley Auditorium, one would never guess the story  Rebecca Halon carries within her.

But as she explained there Thursday morning, the story of one nurse’s cardiac arrest can help future nurses see patients as the people they are, each with a story of their own.

Halon was a healthy, non-smoking 28-year old wife and mother of three on July 1, 2010. She had no way to suspect she would suffer a heart arrhythmia and subsequent cardiac arrest that evening. She would spend the next 72 minutes unconscious while her husband Josh and other health care professionals performed CPR resuscitation techniques that ultimately saved her life.

And after a year of rehabilitation and recovery from the neurological damage done, she brought her experiences and the associated clinical data back to her alma mater, Ivy Tech Community College.

Kim Cooper, RN MSN, dean of Ivy Tech’s nursing school, reminded the auditorium full of nursing students the importance of seeing patients as people, and she introduced Halon by sharing the many traits they  have in common.

Halon, a Terre Haute North Vigo High School graduate, graduated from Ivy Tech’s nursing program with a 4.0 before participating in Indiana State University’s LPN-to-BSN program. There she met her husband who was also studying to become a nurse, and she eventually earned a master’s degree and worked in intensive care units in Indianapolis.

From the start, Halon made the story personal for the future health care workers.

“What is your piece? How do you has health care professionals fit into the story?” she asked before initiating a Power Point presentation documenting the minute-by-minute account of her unexpected episode, treatment and subsequent recovery.

Just the week prior, her family had traveled to Texas for her daughter’s jump rope competition, and like most two-income families with three children, her days were scheduled full. That July 1, they had spent the day with extended family, swimming and eating ice cream, moving nonstop until late that night.

Halon recounted that evening as a “date night” with her husband, once the kids were in the bed, and recalled whispering “I love you” into his ear before heading to the bathroom just before 10:27 p.m.

Those were the last words she would speak for the next 12 days.

At 10:27 p.m. the cardiac arrest struck, she said. Her husband immediately performed CPR, with paramedics arriving just minutes later. Her first defibrillation was given at 10:40 p.m., with two additional shocks issued inside the ambulance, and another 11 at the hospital.

And at the point, she said, her husband was given “the look” both had given other families in similar situations over the years, the one that questioned whether further attempts to resuscitate were wanted. After an hour of unconsciousness, her odds were bleak at best, she said.

But her husband refused a surrender, offering to jump in and do the work himself. In the 72nd minute, her vital statistics turned the corner.

The audience was silent amid the presentation’s pathos, watching screen after screen of diagnostic data. Halon explained the progression of her blood pressure and temperature in clinical terms, moving to the process of “therapeutic hypothermia” into which she was induced. The intentional lowering of a patient’s body temperature has been shown to reduce ischemic injury in part by slowing the cerebral metabolism 5 to 7 percent, she said, offering pictures of her lying in intensive care units similar to the ones she’d once supervised.

Halon spoke for the first time 12 days later and began a battery of rigorous rehabilitation treatments, ranging from speech to physical and occupational. At that point, the former 4.0 student could not name the year’s months backwards and had significant vision problems.

“There were several times in my rehab I questioned why they kept me alive,” she said, noting she did not go home until Aug. 14. Having worked among the sickest of the sick in intensive care units, she’d always feared a health-related incident of that magnitude.

But along the road to recovery, people made the difference, from their refusal to give up on her life, to nursing her back to health.

Halon recounted how her vital statistics leapt when her husband played a voice recording of her son saying “I love you” to her. Nurses who stayed by her side throughout the process, and her husband who took on multiple duties including primary caregiver, all played a role, she said.

“They were amazing,” she said of her nurses, recounting one who prayed over her bed, and another who stayed bedside with she and her husband throughout a long night.

To the unknowing, she appears fine, but fatigue is still an issue a year later. Halon became emotional as she explained that if her recovery were to stop at the stage it’s currently at, she’d still be eternally grateful. The progress she’s made to date is “a miracle” considering the time she spent unconscious. Her story has been featured on MSNBC as well medical journals.

Now back to work part-time teaching classes at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, Halon is writing a book and promoting awareness about cardiac health.

“I should have taken note of the fatigue,” she said in response to questions of prevention. Other than her heavy schedule, she’d been in outstanding health up until the incident, she said.

The audience of nursing students gave her a standing ovation at the speech’s conclusion, as Halon explained how their roles as caregivers not only save, but impact, the lives of people they might never predict.

Brian Boyce can be reached at (812) 231-4253 or

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    March 12, 2010