A mother is lying on the ground, lifeless to the touch. A daughter places her hands on her mother — perhaps for the last time — as the hollow voice of a stranger softly fades into the air.
“She’s gone,” the stranger whispered.
Moments later, paramedics rushed the mother out of a crowded department store with the family running alongside the stretcher, trying to say their final goodbyes.
Earlier in the day, 68-year-old Karen Griffith had decided to go shopping with two of her daughters, Kimberly McCray and Kendra Cram. The trio decided to go to the Ashland Town Center to finish Christmas shopping since the holiday season was in full swing.
However, even though Wednesday, Dec. 13, started out as a normal shopping crusade for three women who had holiday gifts to buy, including presents for Griffith’s 10 grandchildren, the day abruptly turned into a nightmare.
Cram and McCray were looking at clothes in Belk’s when they heard the commotion. A stranger began hollering for an Automated External Defibrillator. Upon hearing the pleas for help, Cram and McCray made their way over toward the person in distress.
“I saw someone on the ground,” Cram said. “I straightened out her legs and I straightened out her hips. I put my hand underneath her neck to straighten her airways, so that we could start CPR and that’s when I realized it was my mom.
“I had my hands on her probably 30 seconds before I even realized it was my mother. My younger sister had yelled a couple of times, ‘THAT’S MOM, THAT’S MOM,’ and that kind of helped me register.”
As Cram was on one side of her mother, a stranger on the opposite side began CPR compressions. Shortly after the chaos began, Cindy Phillips, a cardiac rehab nurse at Southern Ohio Medical Center, rounded the corner and witnessed the event.
She offered to lend a hand to the lady performing CPR. The lady asked Phillips if she was a nurse, and after Phillips acknowledged she was, the lady allowed Phillips to perform CPR while she went to look for an AED. Phillips acknowledged that the longer she performed CPR, the more strenuous the task became because of the emotions of the crowd, especially her family.
However, Phillips attempted to block out the distractions and relied on the training she had received over the past 30 years.
“‘Just do your job.’ That’s all I was trying to focus on,” Phillips said.
Phillips continued to perform CPR until the paramedics arrived. After approximately 25 minutes of CPR, paramedics used an AED and shocked Griffith three times, according to Cram. However, every attempt to bring Griffith back proved to be futile.
“I knew she was gone,” Cram said. “Her tone in her face and her color was very bad. She just wasn’t responding in any way. One of the ladies who had originally done CPR told me she was gone. I knew she was, I already knew that. After they shocked her a few times and they didn’t get her back, I knew.”
Despite the inevitable outcome, Cram was very thankful for all of the strangers that were there to offer a helping hand during a trying time.
“A lot of things happened so quickly,” Cram said. “A lot of people were just amazingly generous and helpful … People were calling numbers for me. People were looking for an AED in Belk’s. We had our children with us, and one lady took our kids and got them away so they didn’t have to watch this happen to their grandmother.”
Once paramedics loaded Griffith onto the stretcher, they continued to provide treatment as they rushed her to the ambulance.
“We were running by them, saying our goodbyes,” Cram said.
After Griffith was loaded into the ambulance, Cram and McCray went to collect their belongings, as well as locate their children.
While Cram and McCray were gathering themselves and preparing to head toward the hospital, an officer approached them about their mother. The officer told them that their mother was awake and talking in the back of the ambulance. Paramedics had shocked Griffith two more times in the ambulance before finally reviving her.
“That was amazing when I got to see her at the hospital and see that she was talking, and she was OK and she was alive,” Cram said. “(The officer) had told me they got her back in the squad, but it took a while for me to really believe it, because I had just seen them shock her three times with no response. They shocked her twice in the squad and got her back.
“Honestly, I just think it’s a miracle. I just think it’s by the grace of God. He was just merciful to us because I know she was gone. I had my hands on her, I know she was gone. I think God provided for us, letting us keep my mom. She has 10 grandkids that love her and need her here, and I think God was just merciful.”
Griffith was diagnosed with sudden cardiac death syndrome. She was transferred to The Ohio State University Ross Heart Hospital in Columbus, where she spent 10 days. Griffith, who had open-heart surgery in 2009 and had a pacemaker implanted later that same year, had a pacemaker defibrillator installed while she was in Columbus, recovering from her recent near-death experience.
According to Griffith, the doctors in Columbus told her she defied the odds — conventional wisdom suggested she should be dead. About a month after being released from OSU, Griffith and her husband, Sam Griffith, made a return trip and, to their surprise, medical personnel, whom they had never encountered, were speaking with them about the incident.
“It was bizarre that the entire hospital was talking about it, but I just feel incredibly blessed,” Karen Griffith said. “I totally believe that God just didn’t want me to leave yet, so I didn’t and that’s all there is to it. I believe I’m here because of God’s mercy and I’m incredibly grateful for that. I’m grateful I get to spend more time with my husband, my children and my 10 grandchildren.
“I sometimes get a little emotional when I think about that part of it.”
Now, Griffith has begun cardiac rehab at SOMC, which isn’t the first time she’s gone through it’s cardiac program. However, Griffith doesn’t mind because she gets to greet a familiar face.
“The funniest thing is I found out the next week, through work here, who she was and I just cried because I was so thankful that she made it,” Phillips said.
Phillips actually knew Griffith from the first time Griffith went through the cardiac rehab program. She knew Griffith’s daughters also, but didn’t recognize any of them during those frantic moments in the Ashland Town Center.
“I’m not really someone who likes to announce that I’m a nurse and get involved in things,” Phillips said. “So, when you look back on this night, I truly feel like God placed me there to be of service to Karen and I’m very thankful for that.”
Griffith can’t begin to express her gratitude for Phillips.
“I am just incredibly thankful God put Cindy in my path that day,” Griffith said. “I’m just very, very thankful God put her there that day. I truly believe he did.”
Phillips said her CPR training was invaluable, and hopefully it would be a great lesson for anyone who wasn’t sure if they should be CPR certified.
“I was just someone who knew CPR and was at the right place at the right time. This is proof positive that CPR does save lives, because the doctors have said to Karen and the family that the CPR is what kept her going,” Phillips said.
Cram agreed with Phillips’ assessment: Effective CPR saved Griffith’s life.
“Her doctors were all amazed that she was able to recover from that, and everyone has said she is alive because of the quick responders and people doing effective CPR,” Cram said. “If people had not been trained to do effective CPR, we would have had a very different outcome. Even if they had done CPR, but it hadn’t been effective, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Griffith said everything had to align correctly for her to survive and, at the end of the day, all of the stars lined up perfectly.
“There were a lot of little things that just had to happen the way they happen for me to survive that whole thing,” Griffith said. “I’m very grateful for it.”
Reach Chris Slone at 740-353-3101, ext 1927, or on Twitter @crslone.