Deborah Lander was dead.
The University of Kentucky viola professor was walking to the Lexington Opera House for a performance of the UK Opera Theatre's production of Falstaff on the afternoon of Feb. 25 when she collapsed with sudden cardiac arrest.
She doesn't remember it. She actually doesn't remember much of anything from that day. She bought a vacuum cleaner. No memory. She had lunch with a friend. No memory.
But she will never forget that she is alive today because after her heart stopped, a bystander performed CPR on her until paramedics arrived.
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"I was dead," Lander says, over a cup of tea (a blend appropriately called "Eternal Life") at her favorite tea shop, MonTea. "And now I am up and walking around and having a normal life.
"It has given me motivation to let people know about CPR."
Lander has become an outspoken advocate for the life-saving procedure and is trying to spread the word about its importance.
Dr. Alison Bailey, an assistant professor in the division of cardiovascular medicine at UK's Gill Heart Institute, says getting immediate CPR was the key to Lander's being able to return to a normal life — teaching classes, giving recitals, visiting MonTea — rather than having to endure extensive rehabilitation or move to an assisted-living facility.
When blood and oxygen stop circulating, Bailey says, the brain and vital organs can be damaged quickly. CPR keeps oxygen and vital nutrients flowing through the body until paramedics arrive.
"She's exceptionally lucky," Bailey says. "A lot of people that are qualified are reluctant to do it."
That's for several reasons, she says, including squeamishness about mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which is no longer part of the recommended CPR procedure, and fear of hurting the patient.
"You really can't hurt them. They're dead," says Lander, a native Australian with the accent to prove it. "It doesn't matter if you break ribs. In fact, it's probably more effective if you do."
Her discussion of CPR even has a musical twist: She says the Bee Gees hit Stayin' Alive provides the proper rhythm for chest compressions.
According to the American Heart Association, more than 64,000 Kentuckians have learned CPR through the organization's efforts since July. But this is a state of more than 4 million residents, so the group would like to raise awareness and ability.
They say they have an ideal spokeswoman in Lander.
"She's a great success story," says Joey Maggard, executive director of the Lexington Division of the American Heart and American Stroke Association. "She has a great personality and sense of humor, and that she was saved by a bystander who knew CPR was so awesome."
Lander's story will be featured as part of the Heart Association's annual ball, on Feb. 16 at the Bluegrass Ballroom in Lexington Center.
"We like to highlight a story of survival at the ball," says Mike Turner, special events director for the group. "Her story is amazing for all the things that had to happen right for her to survive."
Lander says she jokes with baritone Reggie Smith that he saved her life because she was going to the opera to see him sing the title role in Falstaff.
"If I had not been going to the show, I probably would have been home when it happened, and they would have found me dead in my apartment," she says.
Cardiac arrest, Bailey notes, is different from a heart attack, but the latter can lead to the former. It can also be caused by trauma such as a blow to the chest, such as from being kicked by a horse or hit by a ball. The cause is not always known, and it can hit all ages and levels of health, making it all the more important for people to generally know CPR.
A person can become certified in CPR from a few training sessions, though Bailey and others say the basics can be taught in a matter of minutes.
The procedure has changed since the days of several steps, including mouth-to-mouth. Now, CPR basically focuses on starting chest compressions as soon as possible.
The hard part is that it's intense, and you have to keep it going, says Lander, who has had CPR training and held a session with Bailey and another Gill Heart Institute colleague with the students in her viola studio.
Lander says that in the best-case scenario, it's good to have two people capable of performing CPR so they can trade off when the other tires.
"I'll do anything. I'll do anything they want," Lander says of the Heart Institute and Association. "If they say, 'Get up and talk here,' I'll get up and talk.
"It is a motivating thing. I was dead. I was dead on the sidewalk, and now I am up and walking around, having a normal life. It is motivating. If I have one week left, what do I want to do? If I have a year left, what do I want to do?"
One thing she knows she wants to do is let people know that she's still here. To this day, she does not know who performed that lifesaving procedure. Paramedics didn't get a name.
But Lander says there needs to be more people like that anonymous angel.