Brent Winterbottom had just finished playing two hours of pickup basketball and decided to do some shopping in Moscow before returning to Pullman where he was visiting his parents. While walking down a store aisle he felt a bit lightheaded and then....
“I collapsed in the aisle, right next to Brenda.”
Brenda Griffin was also shopping in the Ross Stores in the Palouse Mall.
“I was by myself and he walked down the aisle and I had a big cart, so when he scooted past me he knocked some boxes off a shelf,” Brenda recalled. “And I thought I hadn't given him enough room.”
When she turned around, she saw Brent lying unconscious on the floor on his back.
“His eyes were closed and his legs and arms were real stiff.”
Brent's 33-year-old heart had stopped.
“I thought, ‘Not on my watch,’” Brenda said. “This is not going to happen again.” About two years earlier, a co-worker at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) in Pullman where Brenda is a contract administrator, collapsed and died of a cardiac arrest.
Brent, a physical therapist in the Tri-Cities who grew up in the Pullman-Moscow, Lewiston-Clarkston area, was taking medication for an irregular heart beat and was waiting for additional test results.
“I had had some symptoms,” Brent recalled, “but I remember thinking I felt pretty good playing basketball that morning, and the next thing I knew, I was out on the floor.”
Brenda, 48, had taken CPR classes earlier in life. After the tragic loss of her fellow employee at SEL, she talked with safety experts about what to do if she found herself in a similar situation again.
“I stayed on the floor with Brent and, I just rubbed his sternum because he was still breathing,” she said. “I was just talking to him saying, ‘Stay with me bud; don't leave me.’”
In the meantime, Brenda told another shopper to call 911, and a second woman went to get her son who knew CPR. Paramedics were dispatched, and Brenda relayed information about Brent's condition to authorities.
“Then he turned a really deep blue color,” Brenda said, the same as the man who died two years earlier. “That scared me. So, at that point I hollered I need somebody to help me with CPR. But there wasn't any time to waste, so I kind of punched him three times in his chest cavity.”
In retrospect, Brenda described her action as “hammer” blows with a curled up fist. Such blows are called precordial thumps, or cardiac thumps. They used to be taught as part of CPR, but have pretty much been taken out of formal classes today.
“I was sitting on his side, and I did it three quick times. It was bam, bam bam, just as quick as that,” Brenda said. “I don't know if that did anything to save him, but at the moment that's all I could think of doing to him, but Brent took a great big deep breath and the color came back to his face, and he was awake in probably two or three seconds.”
Paramedics arrived moments later, and Brenda said she remembered hearing Brent's last name, ‘Winterbottom,’ before she left the scene, went home and for nearly two months had no idea of what ultimately happened to the young man she tried to help.
By that time, Brent had been living through what he and his parents, Ed and Chris Winterbottom, considered a miracle recovery.
“He arrested again after the paramedics got there,” said Ed, a nurse anesthetist at Pullman Regional Hospital who has seen many attempts, successful and otherwise, to save patients whose hearts have stopped.
“It bought him enough time until the paramedics got there,” Chris said of Brenda's intervention.
“When I woke up, I remember her being behind me and holding my head,” Brent said. “But I never saw her face.”
Brent was rushed to Gritman Medical Center in Moscow where his father, who also has nurse privileges there, met him in the emergency room.
“I kept telling him ‘I love you, I'm here.’ But you don't know if that's the last time you're going to see your son alive.”
Then Brent's heart stopped again, only to have hospital staff shock him back into a steadier, but still questionable rhythm. While medical staff prepared him for an ambulance ride to Spokane's Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center (fog prohibited a helicopter transport), Ed called Chris, who was en route from Lewiston, where she works as a registered nurse at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center.
“If you think about all the things that can lead to you having heart disease, I don't have any of those things,” Brent said. “But I guess you never know, and I thought, at least now we're kind of getting to the bottom of this.”
After arriving in Spokane, Brent's conditioned remained unstable. Ed said he watched the heart monitor tell the story of a young man who was still flirting with death. Brent asked for his girlfriend, Caitlyn McCartney, whom Ed called back in Omaha, Nebraska.
“All I know is that there's a young man who's just had a cardiac arrest,” Ed said, recalling what he told Caitlyn, “and he's asking if I'd call you and tell you that he loves you.” Caitlyn caught a plane immediately.
And that is when the miracle seemed to happen, Ed and Chris said.
“It wasn't minutes after that phone call that the rhythm stopped being irritable, and it went into a normal rhythm, and we never saw another bad beat again,” Ed said. “I watched it happen.”
Brent spent five days in the hospital during which more tests were done that showed his heart and circulatory system in excellent condition, but his electrical system in dire straits. A pacemaker-defibrillator, about the size of a 50-cent piece with two wires leading to his heart, was implanted under the skin of his upper left shoulder.
“It's just sitting there monitoring, and it has certain parameters,” Brent said of how the instrument works. “It will only put up with so much. If I drop out of one of those parameters, it will take action. It'll try to stimulate me out of that bad rhythm as a first step, and then let it go to see if it corrects. If it doesn't, it hits the reset button, and I get a big shock.”
So far, all seems to be working well. Brent is slowly returning to work. The entire family enjoyed the holidays with a renewed appreciation of life, Ed said.
The story seemed to come full circle when Brenda noticed a fellow employee at SEL with the last name of Winterbottom. She sent an email to Brian Winterbottom, describing the situation and asked if there was a connection.
“Wow,” Brian wrote back, “That was my brother.”
Brenda learned that Brent had indeed survived, and Brent learned what his father confirmed without hesitation.
“She saved his life. Whether he'd come back on his own, that doesn't happen very often,” Ed said. “People don't just spontaneously jump out of V-fib.”
Fellow employees at Pullman Regional Hospital, Ed said, reached out to Brent and the entire family throughout the ordeal.
“Pullman Hospital—where work—as soon as they heard this, Scott Adams (hospital administrator) sent information out to folks. So many people in that hospital sent well-wishes, and that they were thinking and praying for us.”
With the discovery of Brenda, Brent said he agrees with his father who said God was smiling on everyone. “I'm just taking a day at a time,” Brent said.
Brenda and Brent finally met formally shortly before Valentine's Day.
“I took her a Valentine,” Brent said. “It said happy heart day.”
“We hugged,” Brenda, the mother of two grown children, said of the reunion. “And then I got to hug his mom.”
Brenda said she's also signed up to take a new CPR course and encourages everyone to do the same.
“You just never know when you might need to help someone.”