KDKA's Susan Koeppen found life changed in just a heartbeat

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Last October, Susan Koeppen posted to her Twitter account that she'd just completed a one-mile training run: "Just 12 more to go. I'll finish half marathon if it kills me!"

It nearly did. But Monday evening, she co-anchored the KDKA 6 o'clock news, a improbable but happy ending to a two-month series of events that played out like a Lifetime movie.

The facts are these: On the morning of Nov. 20, Ms. Koeppen collapsed while running with friends in Shadyside.

She suffered cardiac arrest, and her heart had to be shocked back into action right there on the sidewalk. After three days in an intensive care ward, heavily sedated, she regained consciousness. Then she got better.

But the facts don't tell the full story: Ninety-five percent of all people who experience that sort of cardiac event outside of a health care setting die.

She is among the 5 percent who lived, mostly because of the almost unbelievable luck of being at the right place with the right people at the right time.

"It's almost miraculous, although I hate using that word because people use it so often," said Jim O'Toole, Ms. Koeppen's husband of 10 years. "It's like having the greatest Christmas gift ever, and getting it every single day."

Her friend Beth Sutton-Diegelman agreed: "It's one of those things that even though I want to cry about it, just the magnitude makes you grateful. It truly is a miracle."

Ms. Koeppen, 39, a mother of three young children, had always been active in sports and recently had taken up running races. She knew she had a fairly common condition known as mitral prolapse. This led to mitral regurgitation: blood in the left ventricle flows back into the left atrium because the mitral valve leaflet isn't closing properly.

"I was first diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse years ago, which is very common in women," she said. "A couple of years ago, I began having moderate regurgitation, so we've known about and followed it for years."

But the signs of trouble were there, she said: "Coughing, shortness of breath, tiredness, light-headedness. I had all of these, but if you're a working woman, you have these [anyway]. I would hear, 'You're just working too hard, it's stress, oh, you might have exercise-induced asthma.' "

Still, she completed her first 5K in October and was so buoyed by the experience, she vowed to run the Pittsburgh half-marathon this May.

She wanted to train through the winter months. Hence, her Twitter posting that joked about surviving the race.

On the morning of Nov. 20, she was on a three-mile run with Ms. Sutton-Diegelman and a mutual friend, Gabey Gosman.

As they headed into the last mile Ms. Koeppen, who was in stride behind the other two women, began to breathe noticeably harder. She surprised them by sprinting ahead, reaching the point of South Negley Avenue that crosses over the Port Authority East Busway.

"I saw she sat down, and when I got there I said, 'Boy, that was quite the burst of energy, Susan,' " said Ms. Sutton-Diegelman. As an ice skating coach, she is accustomed to working with winded athletes, but one look told her something was wrong.

"I asked if she needed some water, and then her eyes rolled back in her head, and she started convulsing."

"It could have been any number of things, but when she turned blue, I knew we were in trouble," said Dr. Gosman, who is an obstetrician.

She immediately checked her companion's vital signs while Ms. Sutton-Diegelman, realizing none of them was carrying a cell phone, yelled for passers-by to call 911. Ms. Koeppen had entered ventricular fibrillation, and her heartbeat was insufficient to support life.

By chance, the man who called 911 was Greg Zak, a friend of Ms. Koeppen's. He did not have the O'Tooles' phone number, but did have their neighbor's in his phone contacts. Meanwhile, Ms. Sutton-Diegelman ran to a nearby nursing home and pounded on the door in case they needed medical equipment.

By chance, two University of Pittsburgh medical students were driving to the nearby Giant Eagle Market District for groceries and jumped out to help.

One of the students, Ranmal Samarasinghe, assessed Ms. Koeppen's pulse while Vanessa Franco, who is working toward a career in emergency medicine, began CPR chest compressions.

Every year, Ms. Franco must be recertified in CPR and has practiced it "a billion times," but "I had never actually done CPR on a person," she said.

"I can't count how many times I just kept literally going through the checklist in my head because if I didn't, I would start to think 'Oh, my god, if I don't start doing these, she's going to die.' "

Ms. Koeppen collapsed around 9:30 a.m. The response to the 911 call was almost immediate; a rescue crew from East Liberty's Engine No. 8 had arrived within minutes.

Somewhere in that short time frame, things were about to get nightmarish for Ms. Koeppen's husband, who is a plastic surgeon.

Mr. Zak was able to reach the neighbor, who found Dr. O'Toole raking leaves while the couple's three children were inside their Shadyside home. Realizing he could probably get to his wife faster on foot than by car, he asked the neighbor to watch the kids, grabbed his wallet, and took off running.

"I don't even remember breathing," he said.

To stave off panic, he went into doctor mode, mentally checking off possible reasons for the collapse, as the firefighters used an Automated External Defibrillator to shock his wife's heart back into a normal rhythm. After following the ambulance to UPMC Shadyside's ER, he reluctantly tried to stay out of the way as a breathing tube was inserted.

"I sat down and became a groveling idiot," he said. "There is no other word, other than despair."

He didn't know "if Susan would be Susan," even if she did physically recover, he said. Beyond that, "I was thinking, 'Am I capable of being a single father of three, am I good enough?' "

Doctors immediately began a hypothermia protocol -- Ms. Koeppen's body temperature was lowered to about 91 degrees to help preserve the organs over the first 24 hours.

For 72 hours, Ms. Koeppen lay in the hospital bed, her brain function mostly unknown. Family came, waited, left, returned. Even now, she recalls almost nothing of the entire weekend.

On Tuesday morning, she opened her eyes. When the breathing tube was removed, she would repeatedly ask the same four questions: Where am I? What happened? Who has the kids? Did you call work?

What she said after that, Dr. O'Toole said, was cause for joy.

"She wanted to know if she had a 'trache,' then said, 'No? So I don't have a huge hole in my neck? Good, 'cause I'm kind of vain like that.'

"That was the moment," he said. "I went from being arguably the most miserable man on the planet to being the happiest guy in the world. I got a second chance that I didn't deserve."

Ms. Koeppen said she probably hasn't been as emotionally devastated over the ordeal because she doesn't remember it: "It didn't really happen to me. My husband had to see me on the ground with people working on me. My friend Beth was cradling me in her arms as I turned blue.

"They have to live with those images. I don't."

After her cardiac arrest, Ms. Koeppen spent two weeks in the hospital but continues outpatient rehab. Early on, she and the other patients had a routine that included watching "The Price Is Right," then the KDKA noon news -- being a contestant on that game show, she said, is on her bucket list. She also says her New Year's resolution is to advocate for more widespread CPR training.

At first in her recovery, Ms. Koeppen walked with a cane and, after surgery to implant a defibrillator, couldn't use her left arm for a while. She is not allowed to drive a car yet and will not return to anchoring at 11 p.m. with Ken Rice until she builds up her strength, but she is doing some consumer reporting as well.

There are still challenges ahead. Ms. Koeppen will have open heart surgery in March to repair the faulty valve. A new, less invasive method that will access her heart through the ribs on her right side will necessitate another round of rehab.

She said her return to work -- she was in the office last week, doing run-throughs with Stacy Smith -- has been another form of rehab: "It was basically the two of us joking around, laughing. Because that's what we normally do."

"If there were any nerves, I think they're gone," Mr. Smith said. "I don't think she's missed a beat."

Life is hardly normal, she said, but it's getting there. Oddly, things like yelling at her husband, or having the kids -- Baden, 6, Reagan, 5, and Declan, 3 -- call her a "bad mommy" because she won't let them scarf all of the cakes and cookies left at the house by well-wishers are the most comforting signs of "normal."

"I feel fine," Ms. Koeppen said, adding that a sense of humor helped get them all through this crisis.

As far as her cardiac arrest, she said, doctors speculate that a combination of exertion from running, dehydration and the mitral regurgitation combined into "this time bomb that went off in my chest."

She never expected it.

"I'm young, I'm healthy, I don't drink. I don't smoke. And yet I nearly dropped dead on the sidewalk. That is just surreal to me."

Correction/Clarification: (Published January 25, 2012) KDKA anchor Susan Koeppen has a heart condition known as mitral prolapse. This led to mitral regurgitation: blood in the left ventricle flows back into the left atrium because the mitral valve leaflet isn't closing properly. A description of this condition was not clear in a story Tuesday about her cardiac arrest in November while running in Shadyside. Also, the firefighters at the scene who used an Automated External Defibrillator to shock her heart back to normal rhythm were also trained as paramedics. That designation was not clear. A breathing tube was inserted in the hospital ER, not at the scene.

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478.


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