Share Your Story: Paula Arbaugh

My name is Paula Arbaugh and I am a wife and mother to three growing boys. 

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I am also a Boy Scout leader and love to go camping, hiking and cook outdoors.  My faith is very important to me and I enjoy doing both women’s and couple’s bible studies with other families in my community. I have worked as a clinical exercise physiologist in cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation for the past 24 years and was a health educator before that. But I write this not as a health professional, but as a sudden cardiac arrest survivor.

On July 29, 2007, at the age of 42, I got to witness God’s protection and provision first-hand.  I had recently arrived at our very first Cub Scout summer camp with my first and second grade sons and was busy hauling camping gear to the campsite, taking a tour of the camp and doing the dreaded “swim test”.  It was here that I ran into trouble.  We needed to swim four lengths of the dock (about the distance of a football field) to qualify as a “swimmer” which would allow us to go in the deeper water and participate in boating activities. I was on my third length when I didn’t feel right and knew I needed to get out of the water. A fellow parent encouraged me to do the last lap, but I knew I needed to stop. I got out of the water, picked up my “beginner” swim tag instead of the “swimmer” tag I had intended to get and then sat down on a picnic bench to rest.  My last thought was “I sure hope there is a hospital close by.”

The rest of the story was told to me by other adults that were with us at camp.  I was told I collapsed to the ground and one of the mother’s called out for help.  The lifeguard ran over to me and determined that I wasn’t breathing and didn’t have a pulse.  I had had a sudden cardiac arrest. The lifeguard started Hands-Only CPR and a radio call to the camp’s health officer was made to bring the AED. She literally ran out of her shoes as she made the quarter mile trek down a steep hill to bring the AED to my side. One of the Dad’s in our group was a paramedic/firefighter and well trained in CPR and AED use.  The three of them continued to do full CPR until they got the AED attached and a shock was given.  One shock was administered and CPR was continued.  The health officer said I was completely blue before the shock but started to pink up a bit after the shock and CPR was continued.  911 had been called and once EMS arrived, it was determined that I had regained a pulse and was breathing on my own.  I was loaded into the ambulance and taken to hospital number one, Calumet Medical Center in Chilton. My husband had been called and was told that I had collapsed and needed CPR and that he should go immediately to the hospital in Chilton.  My husband left with our youngest son (only four at the time) and started driving the hour plus trek with the expectation of hearing “I’m sorry, we did everything we could” once he got to the hospital.  He says all he could think about during that drive was how was he going to raise three little boys by himself and how would he tell our littlest one that his mamma wasn’t ever coming home.

I don’t remember much about the hospital stay as one of the effects of sudden cardiac arrest is loss of short term memory. They stabilized me, did some initial testing to see if I was having a heart attack (I wasn’t) and then shipped me to hospital number 2, Mercy Medical Center in Oshkosh.  More testing was done at Mercy and finally a cardiac cath was done to see if blockages to my coronary arteries had caused the cardiac arrest.  I had no blockages so the cause of my arrest was unknown which led to my third hospital trip to St. Lukes in Milwaukee.

Since there was not a “fixable” cause for my sudden cardiac arrest, my electrophysiologist determined that I needed an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, otherwise known as an ICD. The ICD would sense an abnormal heart rhythm and, if needed, give me a shock to get the heart rhythm back to normal. I have now had my defibrillator for almost eight years and am happy to say that I have only been shocked once. I have had several episodes of an abnormal heart rhythm, but none have lasted long enough to need another shock. 

I feel so blessed to have had all of the trained people and emergency equipment available that day to save my life.  Only about 5% of people that have a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital survive but my heroes used the skills they learned from the American Heart Association to save me that day! I can’t even imagine what life would be like for my husband and three sons if I had not survived.

My relationship with the American Heart Association actually began long before my sudden cardiac arrest.  I became an American Heart CPR instructor in the mid-1980’s and taught many people these life-saving skills over the years. Little did I know that I would one day be the recipient of those very skills. I have also been a volunteer for the American Heart Association and have helped plan fundraising events such as “Country Dance for Heart” and the “American Heart Walk.”  Professionally, I rely on the American Heart Association for current research on heart and cardiovascular disease prevention and treatment.  The American Heart Association also offers many great educational tools for my patients.  I have always believed in the American Heart Association’s mission of “building healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke, ” it just hits a little closer to home these days.  I gladly support the American Heart Association and hope that you will too!




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