Key Takeaways

    • Seeing someone you love in cardiac arrest and giving them CPR is  traumatic.
    • Not only is your loved one’s life threatened, but your life together is in danger, too. 
    • In the first few moments your brain is working on instinct, processing seriousness, and calculating what to do. 
    • After the event, you may be left with feelings of shock, fear, guilt, shame, anger, vulnerability, or self-doubt.
    • Remember, you are resilient and can push through your distress.
Can I ever unsee what I saw?

Witnessing cardiac arrest can be a traumatic experience, especially if it’s happening to a family member. It can feel like you and your family are suddenly swept into a dangerous storm. And if you gave CPR, your level of distress can climb even higher. You are now part of this agonizing moment that will stay with you for a very long time, and it’s normal to be affected emotionally in its aftermath. This article will share personal accounts and insights from co-survivors who not only witnessed their loved one’s cardiac arrest but also gave them CPR and saved them. Like some of you, they also found themselves in this sudden, high-alert situation with their loved ones.

Nothing can truly prepare you for seeing someone you love collapse, unresponsive, and not breathing. Maybe you knew about cardiac arrest, or maybe you had no idea it could happen to this seemingly healthy family member. In the early moments, your mind worked on instinct, trying to assess what was happening and what to do. As realization struck, you shifted into high alert. Below are actual accounts of co-survivors, intended to help you and reassure you that you are not alone in your feelings. However, reading them may trigger emotional distress.

“It all depended on me”

It’s a Saturday morning, and my husband is complaining of heartburn – previously a sign that he might be having a heart attack. We begin packing our bags to go to the ER. I am in the kitchen tidying up when I hear a very loud thud from the living room. He hits his head on our glass coffee table and lands on his stomach. He is gasping for air, and there is blood on the floor from his face. What I don’t know is that his heart has stopped beating. He is in cardiac arrest. 

I immediately dial 911, and the first instruction I get is to put him on his back. How can I do this? He is 6’2” and 200 lbs. I am under 5 feet tall. I’m crazed. I scream my address to the operator, making unintelligible sounds and cries. I run into the hallway, knocking on apartment doors, begging for help. My neighbor comes out, and I yell,  “SOMETHING IS WRONG. I THINK HE’S HAVING A SEIZURE!”  We come into my apartment, and together we get my husband on his back. 

Suddenly through the phone, I hear a different man’s voice asking, “Have you ever performed CPR before?” I respond with one word: “Never.”   

He is blue. His eyes are fixed. I’m yelling, “BREATHE, BREATHE!!” I feel my soul come out of my body, and I’m looking at myself from above, pounding on his chest. After eight excruciating minutes, the paramedics sweep in. They shock him three times. His heart finally starts beating, they put a breathing tube in him, and he is brought to the hospital in an ambulance. 

You can never unsee what you’ve seen. The images from that morning when my husband was dying on our living room floor are forever etched in my brain. There was a surreal feeling when I was giving CPR, knowing that if I didn’t do this properly, he might die. It all depended on me.

“I woke up suddenly to a loud noise I will never forget”

One dark morning in May, I wrecked my body giving 10 minutes of CPR. My 34-year-old husband had been lying peacefully next to me, both of us fast asleep. I woke up suddenly to a loud noise I will never forget.

At first, I thought he was snoring. I groggily nudged him, but he just continued making the horrible sound. I shook his shoulder, but he didn’t respond. As reality set in, I realized that the sound had an urgent, panicked quality to it. It wasn’t rhythmic or soft. His torso didn’t gently rise and fall as I had watched it move so many times before. I had never heard of agonal breathing.

I said my husband’s name. No response. I shouted his name. Nothing. I put my ear on his chest and couldn’t hear his heartbeat or feel him breathing. I picked up his arm and let it go. It dropped like a rock.

That was the first time I’ve ever experienced an out-of-body sensation. One part of my brain understood these observations as facts. Another part couldn’t make any sense of it. The objective piece watched with detachment and allowed me to stay calm, dial 911, and follow the dispatcher’s telephone CPR instructions. The other part watched in dismay and couldn’t accept what was happening. It was as if one part was watching the other, and they would periodically switch roles in a forbidding dance on death’s stage.

“Did I do it right? Did I do it hard enough?” 

I cannot piece together what I am seeing. In these milliseconds, time stops, but somehow I know I cannot. My fear swiftly transforms into realization, then dread. And with the outcome unknown, I just do.

My mind narrows and finds its focus. My heart, still pounding, powers my muscles. Superhuman strength removes any limits I ever thought I had. And 225 pounds of dead weight (pardon the pun) is no problem to lift. In fact, I won’t even remember it. Right now, I have one mission. I have one job. I must be his heartbeat. And so I take a deep breath and begin CPR. My knees and feet are in this world, while my head, heart, and hands are in the space between heaven and earth. 

When EMS takes over, I back away and watch the seemingly black-and-white movie play out before me. My mind is cloudy, and my vision is blurred. I seem to float. I am silent. I pace. I watch them at work applying their pads. I pray. I question myself: “Did I do it right? Did I do it hard enough?”

At the ER, I am parched from breathing so hard. When I try to get a soft drink from the vending machine, I cannot seem to do that simple task. A kind person senses my plight and steps in to help me. I cannot understand why I feel so confused. Am I in shock?

Understanding your experience

Perhaps your experience left you with similar thoughts, feelings, and sensations as those articulated in these personal accounts including:

    • Unfamiliar sights, sounds, and physical touch
    • Fear and confusion as your reality sets in 
    • Overcoming feelings of self-doubt in your ability or physical strength 
    • Narrowing your focus to only the critical task at hand
    • Sense of disconnection while still performing CPR

Memories of traumatic events, such as giving CPR to a loved one, are often formed by our five senses rather than a linear story. As expressed in the personal accounts, “sense memories,” including sights, sounds, physical sensations, smells, and even tastes associated with the incident, can become integral parts of your memory that stay with you. 

Another experience mentioned is feeling that you were disconnected from your own body, as if watching from above or watching a movie. This sometimes unsettling feeling is normal, too. It’s a protective measure of putting distance between you and the traumatic event, like how an airbag protects you in a car crash. 

When it’s your loved one’s life you are acting to save, the stakes are incredibly high. Your life together is in danger, too. You may feel as though your sense of safety has been ripped from you.

Understanding what’s going on in your body when you witness cardiac arrest and give CPR can help begin to make sense of what happened to you.

What is happening to you in those initial moments of witnessing a cardiac arrest?

Cardiac arrest is an extreme form of a medical emergency. When you suddenly become aware of it, adrenaline surges and puts you in fight-or-flight mode. This is a normal biological response to witnessing any crisis. Adrenaline gives your body immediate strength and helps your mind focus on the situation at hand. 

In the first few moments, the brain works on instinct, processing the seriousness, calculating what to do, and determining what is happening based on past information stored in the mind from prior training, movies, or whatever knowledge has been implanted through past experiences. 

The body is on high alert. You may feel compelled to take immediate action, or you may freeze, or you may watch as others you perceive as more qualified take over. If you are the only person with someone in cardiac arrest, you may have had a 911 dispatcher on the phone to help you help them. In any of these scenarios, when your body is on high alert, you may experience the following symptoms.

Symptoms when it happens:

    • Feeling overwhelmed
    • Feeling unsafe
    • Acting impulsively
    • Feeling anger/rage
    • Having racing thoughts
    • Feeling emotionally reactive
    • Hypervigilance
    • Intrusive images
    • Having repeated, persistent, unwanted thoughts
    • Tension, rigidity, or shaking
    • Showing poor judgment
What is happening to you in the hours after the event?

In the immediate hours after the event, you may be left with feelings of shock, fear, guilt, shame, anger, or vulnerability. It is not uncommon for individuals to experience doubt, questioning their own performance or even the nature of the incident itself. Gaining an understanding of common reactions and where they are rooted can help.

Symptoms during the first few hours:

    • Headache
    • Stomachache
    • Changes in vision
    • Lightheadedness
    • Jitteriness, restlessness, or inability to sleep
    • Nervous
    • Sweaty palms, tight muscles, increased heart rate
    • A sense of physical displacement
    • Feeling dazed or surreal
    • An altered sense of reality (e.g., feeling as if time has slowed)
    • Difficulty remembering specific details of the event

This initial phase can be challenging. The mind grapples with the high-stakes incident, trying to understand it and find closure. And when cardiac arrest happens to a loved one and you give CPR, you have two traumas to overcome: the trauma of your loved one’s medical situation and prognosis itself, plus the trauma of giving CPR to someone you love. Sometimes processing your own trauma may take a backseat to the immediate healthcare needs of your loved one. 

In the weeks and months that follow the cardiac arrest, processing the event can be important to your recovery. Making sense of what happened allows you to put the pieces back together and move forward. Remember, you are resilient. You can push through your distress. Heartsight is here to help.

Flanary K. The Quiet Place. J Card Fail. 2021 Nov; 27 (11): 1300-1301. DOI: PMID: 34749929. Bezzubova, E. (2016, Feb. 9). The “Airbag” of Depersonalization: Shield or Disorder? Psychology Today Blog. Community AED & PAD Guide:
Thank you to our contributors

Paul Snobelen, Kristin Flanary, Cindy Marchionda, & Jennifer Chap

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