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First Person

Slow Journey Back From the Darkness

January 03, 1989|KRISTEN CHRISTOPHER

I was on top of the world when it happened: An A-minus student. About to graduate from Stanford. Editor of the school paper and looking forward to a reporting job on a newspaper or magazine.

At least, that's what my family and friends tell me.

I have only a shadowy perception of the old me, an image built on the memories of others. Often I wonder what I was really like and how much I changed in those moments my brain was deprived of oxygen.

The date was March 29, 1984, three days after my 21st birthday. I'd flown to Honolulu with close friends for a pre-graduation spree and birthday celebration. My boyfriend and I had a drink at a beachside bar, then headed for a hot, packed disco.

There, we elbowed our way to the bar and ordered another drink. We'd taken only a sip or two, when "99 Luftballoons" came blaring over the 10-foot speakers and my boyfriend led me through the crowd and onto the dance floor.

I don't remember what happened next, but I do know the following few moments changed my life. Those nearby say I began dancing out of control, my arms swinging wildly, my mind fixed on a beat apparently only I heard. Embarrassed, my boyfriend reached out to grab me when I fell to the floor and began convulsing.

After my boyfriend screamed for help, two quick-thinking employees began administering CPR and someone called the paramedics. Arriving a few minutes later, they pressed defibrillator paddles against my heart in a desperate attempt to restart it. I was rushed to the nearest hospital in a comatose state. But at least my heart was beating again.

What caused such sudden cardiac failure?

As drugs were not detected in my bloodstream, doctors began extensive tests, hoping to pinpoint the cause. Today, they still don't know the answer and tell me it was a weird fluke, one that should not happen again.

According to the American Heart Assn.'s most recent statistics, it is extremely unlikely that a 21-year-old woman will experience what I did; only 0.7%, ages 29 to 44, suffered cardiac arrest in 1984.

Four days later, I emerged from a coma, a rare statistic. Once the respiration tubes were removed from my throat, however, it became apparent that something was seriously wrong.

"I'm going to leave now," I announced, repeating myself every five seconds or so. Bewildered, confused and determined to leave the hospital, I had to be strapped to the bed with oversized rubber band-like restraints. I recognized few of my friends and even had trouble distinguishing my mom and dad.

I remained in intensive care for two weeks. During that time my parents, an older brother and friends attempted to fill me in on the details of a life I didn't remember. But their words were wasted because I remembered little from minute to minute.

When my heart rhythm appeared stable, I was flown to a Los Angeles hospital. There, I underwent seven more weeks of testing to determine the cause of the incident and to evaluate my mental condition.

I was extraordinarily confused. Reading simple words or adding two and two was more than I could do.

So every day I had therapy. I struggled to learn to add and subtract or read about Dick and Jane. Even more difficult was learning to remember what I'd read only two minutes before. The progress was very slow, because I had almost no short-term memory. Today, my short-term memory is much improved but still slightly diminished.

Perhaps it's for the best that I was confused about my situation. Had I remembered my former self, I would undoubtedly have been far more frustrated by my lack of progress, and far more embarrassed by my actions.

Even so, there were many times when I'd just sit on the floor in tears, wondering when I would be myself again.

When I was released from the hospital in May of 1984, my heart was--and still is--stabilized by medication. I spent the summer at my parents' house trying to improve my reading and memory in preparation for my return to Stanford.

Back at school, I chose classes without in-class exams to avoid overtaxing my ability to remember. Even so, school was a completely different experience for me. Previously, I'd almost always earned A's and Bs. Now I was getting Cs and Ds.

My already diminished attention span was made worse by the medication prescribed to calm severe body spasms, another result of the lack of blood flow to the brain. I fought through the classes and nights of spasms. And, aching inside, I made excuses for my poor grades.

After finishing school in April of 1985, I began work as an intern in the Los Angeles bureau of Newsweek. It was the first of a string of unsuccessful reporting jobs. At each publication I had the same problem: Even though I thought I was doing a good job, I wasn't.

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