Two Years – Ten Months – Twenty Days Ago, I died.

Second chances and unordinary circumstances.

Posted by Spencer Shell on August 24, 2014

I have no recollection of the event, but I’ve heard the story retold so many times that I may as well have seen it all. I was jogging through N.C. State’s campus on Dan Allen Drive by Witherspoon Hall. I collapsed and fell into Harris Field, right by an event being put on by Campus Recreation. Another jogger, an ex-marine, quickly pulled me up onto the sidewalk and began CPR. Other people had begun to notice what was going on. Two students working for Campus Recreation (who had just been trained in CPR 2 weeks prior) ran over, and called an ambulance, and assisted the jogger in giving me CPR until paramedics arrived.

Here is the timeline my mother posted on the CaringBridge journal:

On September 2nd, just prior to 5:30 PM, Spencer’s roommate Jeff remembers talking to Spencer before he went for a run.

5:31 PM Spencer collapses on the sidewalk on Dan Allen Dr. in front of Harris Field, just before Cates Ave (.8-1 mi from his house).

5:31pm Students saw him collapse and immediately administered CPR. 911 was called.

5:35 First Emergency Responders arrived, Dena and Tim. FOUR minutes, unbelievable! Fire truck immediately afterwards, B shift from Station 5 on Oberlin just on the edge of campus.

Cary EMS immediately following, Chris and Tracy, then the 2 special EMS cars/truck driven by supervisors Gene and Jeff and only go to special cardiac cases. Campus Police was also there along with school officials. All this while hundreds (maybe thousands according to the ems folks) of students circled and watched and prayed, according to witnesses.

My heart had gone into ventricular fibrillation. “Vfib”, as I heard numerous doctors call it, is an type of arrhythmia–a series of irregular electrical signals in the ventricle chamber of the heart. Instead of beating normally, the walls quiver erratically, like they’re having a seizure. The heart quickly becomes unable to pump blood to other organs.

“The doctors know he had a cardiac arrest, his heart was in ventricular defibrillation, he developed ARDS as a result of aspirating, but they cannot find any causes for the cardiac arrest. His heart tests are normal.” — Koby Shell

The paramedics arrived and when they reached me, they defibrillated my heart four times. I was told that after the first administration my heart had remained in arrhythmia until the fourth administration.

For those 21 minutes, I was clinically dead.

I spent the next six days in a coma while the doctors cooled my body to 32 degrees in order to avoid brain damage. During this time I was on life support. None of my organs were functioning. My mother and father, Don and Koby, rarely left my side. My mom also kept a blog online through CaringBridge to keep people updated on all the things that were going on. It offers a very in-depth view to everything that happened.

The stories you hear about people dying usually end with tunnels, lights, flashbacks, God, and big epiphanies. That isn’t what happened to me.

After finally regaining enough consciousness to understand my situation, I sat for hours staring at the hospital walls.

I didn’t have any life changing realizations. I wasn’t regretful. In fact, I couldn’t think of anything in my life I wanted to change at all. Being trapped alone in that sterile room with wires hanging off my chest only made me think about everything in my life I wanted back.

Most people I tell this story to think I’m unlucky because I had a cardiac arrest at 20 years old. But I don’t think so. Only five percent of people who suffer ventricular fibrillation out of the hospital survive. Of those that do survive, more than half of them have brain damage. That means only two and a half percent fully recover. Not only did I fully recover, but I did so in the company of the people closest to me.

I also did a double sprint triathlon at Kure Beach the following spring with one of the EMT’s who was on my scene. What a cool experience.

If there is one lesson I took away from the experience, it is not to “live life to the fullest” or “have no regrets”. It is to notice and appreciate the things in your life that sometimes go unnoticed. Noticing requires a certain humility we often lose sight of.

For me, it took losing everything to remember and realize the grace/purpose/calling I’ve received.