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How a stranger used CPR to save a GTA mom — and why the Red Cross wants you to know about it

Less than a month after delivering her baby girl, 27-year-old Anastasiya Kaczmarek never would have imagined she would have a sudden cardiac arrest, collapsing metres from her home. Luckily, someone who knew CPR got to her in time to help save her life.

November is CPR month, when the Red Cross wants Canadians to learn the life-saving technique

Anastasiya Kaczmarek, 27, pictured here with Miles, daughter Evelina, left, and baby Veronica. She says she has no memory of the couple of days before her cardiac arrest and memory gaps that span the weeks before. (Submitted by Anastasiya Kaczmarek)

Less than a month after delivering her baby girl, 27-year-old Anastasiya Kaczmarek never would have imagined she would have a sudden cardiac arrest.

"Everyone who saw me that day said I was fine, being myself. I actually have no memory of that day or a couple days before it," she told CBC News Monday as she stood not far from the spot where she collapsed. It happened just metres from her home  in Georgetown, Ont., about 54 kilometres northwest of Toronto.

On Sept. 17, Kaczmarek left for a short walk with her newborn to meet her husband who had just picked up their toddler from daycare. When he called to check up on her, Miles Kaczmarek said he was surprised when a man picked up the phone. It was their neighbour explaining what had happened. He rushed over.

"It's a surreal experience to see someone that you love be in a state where they're unresponsive and lying on the ground and not being themselves," Miles said.

A few neighbours stopped to help and called 911, but it was the actions of a local resident who happened to drive by who likely played a big role in saving her life. He gave her cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for approximately 10 minutes before paramedics arrived and she was taken to Georgetown Hospital.

"It takes a really dedicated person to jump in," Anastasiya said.

Chris Giles says he was out with his wife getting ice cream when he drove by and saw Anastasiya Kaczmarek lying on the ground, surrounded by neighbours. His training kicked in and he immediately started giving her CPR. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

November is CPR month, a time when the Canadian Red Cross highlights the importance of getting trained in the emergency procedure, which uses chest compressions to mimic how the heart pumps. These compressions help keep blood flowing throughout the body and can help save a person's life if their breathing or heart stops. 

The Red Cross says effective bystander CPR, when used in conjunction with an automated external defibrillator (AED) and administered immediately following cardiac arrest, can double a person's chance of survival. Medical experts say cardiac arrests rose during the pandemic due to a delay in care, and they stress the importance of more people educating themselves on how to save a life.

Chris Giles says he happened to be driving by shortly after Kaczmarek collapsed and stopped to check on her.

"I realized she was in serious distress; no pulse, not breathing and right away I administered CPR until [paramedics] arrived," he said.

"I was in law enforcement for quite a while and received lots of training and lots of experience there. All that culminated into helping this young lady."

Kaczmarek was later told by doctors her heart stopped beating properly that day — going into a flutter called ventricular fibrillation, a dangerous type of arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat.

Cardiac arrests increased during pandemic

Dr. Katherine Allan, a PhD researcher with Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital who specializes in cardiac arrest research in young people,  says around 35,000 Canadians each year suffer a sudden cardiac arrest, around 7,000 in Ontario.

"You may think it can't happen to you, but it can really happen to anyone, so it's really important anyone knows how to save a life," she said, adding she's a big believer in kids learning the procedures too.

"If we've learned at a young age then we're going to grow up knowing and comfortable stepping in saving someone's life."

While she said sudden cardiac arrest in younger people is more rare, often people don't know they have a heart problem until it happens. When it does, every second counts.

"So if everyone knows the steps of what to do when this happens then people have a much better chance of surviving," she said.

Allan said the pandemic had a big impact on the number of cardiac arrests, with numbers going up around the world, including Canada. That is partly due to people delaying care. 

Dr. Katherine Allan is a PhD researcher at Toronto's St. Michael’s Hospital, who specializes in cardiac arrest in young people. (Submitted)

She says research at the beginning of the pandemic showed people were more hesitant to step in as a bystander. Researchers are conducting a follow-up survey to determine if attitudes have changed since the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

Don Marentette, director of first aid and education at the Canadian Red Cross, says the organization highlights the importance of CPR every November.

"We promote the concept of CPR and encourage people to get trained, because CPR saves lives and we know that," he said.

Marentette added training is offered across the country for various groups, including kids, workplaces and seniors. He's also encouraging people to download the Red Cross First Aid app, where people can learn more about CPR.

"We try to make it really easy to learn because we want people to be confident and willing to take action and to help."

Family hopeful their story motivates others

After the cardiac arrest, Kaczmarek spent weeks in hospital. She was airlifted to Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital, where the intensive care team continued to stabilize her and minimize damage to her brain and heart.

"During this time, my husband, parents, family and friends were not sure if I would survive or if I would be able to make a recovery to my previous self," she said. She also had surgery to implant a cardioverter defibrillator in her chest.

Kaczmarek says she still doesn't know what caused her cardiac arrest. She's back home now but is still recovering and has to limit her movement.

Giles, the man who first performed CPR on her, connected with the family afterward. He said it was rewarding to see the outcome.

"She gets to go home to her children and husband, and most importantly, the kids have a mom," he said.

The family thanked him, but Miles says it's difficult to put the gratitude he is feeling into words.

"To know someone who is a stranger to us would stop ... and have the courage to step in and start doing CPR, this is what saved her life. I am forever grateful and no words or actions can ever express how grateful I am."

Meanwhile, Kaczmarek and her husband hope sharing their story inspires people to learn CPR and other life-saving first-aid procedures.

"I feel like that is probably one of the reasons why I am here today," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.

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