A few short months ago, the odds were heavily stacked against her survival and her chances of resuming a normal life; but as KDKA-TV News Anchor Susan Koeppen returns to work at the anchor desk for the first time since November, she’s sharing her story in the hopes that it may inspire more people to learn what to do to save a life.
After 7 years reporting for CBS News in New York, Susan came home to Pittsburgh and joined KDKA-TV last fall.
Susan Koeppen the Survivor
Life was kind of chaotic, but in a good way. She was busy with work, busy with her husband Jim; and especially with their three little kids. On top of all that, Susan had begun training for a half-marathon. She’d just run a 5K in October; and on November 20th, she hooked up with her friends and fellow runners, Gabey Gosman and Beth Sutton. “Hey let’s go out for a couple of miles, do a couple miles on a Sunday morning,” Susan recounts. “Go home, go on with our day.”
It seemed like a good plan — at least until the women were on the home stretch on Negley Avenue in Shadyside. Beth had just asked Susan if she was OK, having noticed that she didn’t look good. “She said ‘ No, no. Old girl’s gonna power through.’ I said alright so we kept running.”
In fact, Beth says Susan surged ahead of her friends; but then, stopped. “[She] put her hands on her knees and kind of bent over like she was trying to catch her breath, then she put her right hand back and kind of sat herself back down on the ground and lay down. And knowing Susan, she’s kinda funny anyways, so I… ran upon her and said , ‘Susan, that was quite a burst of energy you had there,’ and she was gasping for air just like she was winded and out of breath. And I bent over her and I looked down. I said, ‘Do you need some water?’ and she didn’t respond. She was still gasping for air, so I put my arm underneath her back and I lifted her up cause I had a water bottle on my arm and I said – I looked at her again, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, Gabey, there’s something wrong,’ and at that point her eyes rolled in the back of her head and I laid her down and she started to convulse.”
Gabey happens to be a physician — a fertility specialist. As a doctor, she knew this was a serious situation; but it was still hard for her to comprehend. “I think there’s an element of denial because it’s a friend who’s young and healthy, and there’s like a bunch of ‘this is not happening.’”
But it quickly became clear that it was a life or death emergency and they needed help. They flagged down Vanessa Franco and Ranmal Samarasinghe, who pulled over to find Susan in cardiac arrest and turning blue.
As third year medical students, they’d done CPR plenty of times — on mannequins; but never on a human being. “I was taking her pulse and watching her breathe while [Vanessa] was doing the compressions,” Ranmal explained. “And I was just trying so hard,” Vanessa added, “and I kept yelling her name ‘cause someone told me her name was Susan, so I just kept yelling, ‘Come on, come on Susan!’… I was terrified of losing her and I mean, I mean, I don’t know — I just went into automatic mode and just like did everything I could.”
Responding to a neighbor’s 911 call, Lt. Dan Elias’ crew from the city’s Engine 8 arrived. “We jumped out of the rig and pretty much, there wasn’t a word spoken, really.”
Elias took over the compressions, while William Gorham and John Mares hooked up an automatic external defibrillator. They shocked Susan’s heart, right there on the sidewalk; but even after, to Vanessa, it didn’t look good. Maybe she remembered learning that nine out of ten people who suffer cardiac arrest outside a hospital don’t make it.
“I’ve seen people get shocked and suddenly come, you know, have a lot more life to them — and she wasn’t,” Vanessa explained, “and I was like, I was just deathly afraid for her.”
Everyone there was afraid; except for Susan. “It didn’t really happen to me; it did, but it didn’t,” Susan recalled. “I feel sorry for these guys and for my husband. They were with me, she was cradling me in her arms as I was dying — that’s something she’s never gonna forget and she’s not gonna get that out of her mind; and my husband ran to the scene and saw me on the ground. He’s never gonna forget that. They can’t get it out of their minds, but for me it was just black.”
Because she didn’t come to, the immediate fear as she arrived at Shadyside Hospital was brain damage. No one had to explain that to Susan’s husband, Jim O’Toole — himself an M.D. He estimated that Susan’s heart had stopped or been short-circuiting for about six minutes. “The terrifying thing — aside from the whole experience — is when you get outside of five minutes, the potential for severe brain injury goes up significantly ,” Jim added, “and if you get beyond 7 minutes, meaningful recovery is not expected.”
Doctors then began chilling her body — a protective therapy that greatly reduced her need for oxygen.
Her fate would be a mystery for at least 24 hours. “That whole time frame, I have no idea what’s gonna be at the end of it,” added Jim. “I don’t know what her brain function’s going to be — is it going to be Susan or some, some awfully intangible version of her that’s not the woman I married — and that was as tough as anything.”
His thoughts turned to their three children. “I had to legitimately decide or think about whether or not I was capable of being a single father of three, the oldest of which was 6, and having that be a legitimate thought and having to concretely think about that and then think about what the next step would be is not an easy thing to think about.”
As Susan emerged from the therapeutic hypothermia, she gradually became more responsive. Jim was there when her respirator was removed and she spoke for the first time.
She didn’t know she was in the hospital or what had happened to put her there.
“The only word that really explains it is desperation,” Jim said. “I went from that to being the happiest man on the planet, because I realized we had just been lucky enough to survive through something we had no business surviving through.”
“We talk about it a lot, which is actually — is therapeutic, you know.” Susan said — choking up a little. “You know, I have not gotten emotional at all about it, but sitting here with these guys and knowing that, you now, we just went for a run that day. We’re just three moms chugging along and you know, I went down for the count. How does that happen? Wow. But I’m here. Obviously, it wasn’t my time.”
This was not a typical heart attack due to blocked arteries or an unhealthy lifestyle. Doctors blamed it on a heart abnormality Susan knew about. She now has a new little “appliance” in her chest and she’s facing heart surgery to repair a faulty cardiac valve.