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WEB EXCLUSIVE: A transplant survivor, TCHC nurse promotes healthy hearts

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One night in October 2011, Stephanie Larson was relaxing with friends at a bar in Hewitt.

That’s when the 32-year-old Tri-County Health Care nurse collapsed. One of her friends, a fellow nurse, realized Larson was having a cardiac arrest and immediately began CPR.

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“I don’t think I’d be here without her,” Larson said.

The CPR kept her alive until first responders rushed her to TCHC, where the doctors and nurses fought to stabilize their colleague. Wasting no time, Larson was airlifted to the University of Minnesota hospital.

Doctors there discovered she was born with rare heart condition, called cardiomyopathy. They implanted a pump to do the work of the one side of her heart that was permanently damaged. In May 2012, Larson got on the waiting list for a heart transplant, which she received that September.

Eighteen months later, Larson appears healthy and happy. She returned to TCHC last year as a part-time nurse in the surgery department.

“Today I feel really good,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “My body has some limitations, but I’m pretty much back to normal.”

After such a close brush with death, the mother of two has a new perspective on the unpredictability of life.

“Today could be the last day,” she said. “So you tend to live that way.”

When her heart condition emerged without any warning signs (the first sign of cardiomyopathy is often sudden cardiac arrest), Larson was an otherwise healthy young adult who didn’t think a medical crisis would strike her.

“At that age, you are kind of living life to the fullest and you don’t stop and think about those things,” she said.

Now, spreading awareness about heart heart is one of Larson’s passions. Emphasizing prevention through healthy lifestyles, she’s active on a TCHC wellness committee and tells her story at American Heart Association panels. Although American Heart Health Month ends Friday, her work continues all year long.

Larson is a living example that, contrary to stereotypes, heart disease doesn’t just affect middle-aged men.

“It can strike anybody at any time,” she said. “It doesn’t matter your age, gender or ethnicity.”

According to the American Heart Association, the disease is the number one killer of women, taking more lives each year than the next four causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer.

Cancer screening is certainly important, but women also need to be paying attention to their hearts, said Dr. Shaneen Schmidt, who practices family medicine at TCHC.

Up to 80 percent of cardiac events could be prevented if the women had eaten healthier, exercised more and abstained from smoking.

“The biggest thing is having an awareness of risk factors,” Schmidt said. “Prevention is a big deal.”

The main risk factors, she said, are family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight, being physically inactive and other diseases, such as diabetes. Embracing healthy habits can significantly reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Besides promoting those habits, Larson is also a huge advocate for organ donation.

“If you’re able to give that gift of life to someone, why not?”

She said she will be forever grateful to the young man named Ben whose heart gave her the chance to watch her children grow up.

“Ben is that angel always watching over me.”

Hands-only CPR

The most effective way of keeping someone alive during a cardiac arrest is CPR. The American Heart Association is promoting an alternative to the conventional technique. It’s called hands-only CPR.

Here’s some information about it from Allen Smith, TCHC EMS manager.

  • The American Heart Association recognized that when people experienced cardiac arrest at work or in public settings, sometimes citizens and bystanders were reluctant to start CPR because they had put their mouths on somebody.

  • The American Heart Association did some studies and came to the conclusion that doing something is better than doing nothing. These findings led to the new “hands-only CPR” recommendation.

  • Hands-only CPR is very simple to do and makes a huge difference. In simplest terms, hands-only CPR is about making the pump (heart) work and the pump works by pushing blood around to the areas and organs that need it to save a life.

  • It’s really easy to save a life – first remember to call 911. Then, it’s simple – “Push Hard and Push Fast” in the center of the chest. And if you want to want to keep the rhythm correctly use that 70s classic “Stayin Alive” in the back of your head while you are pushing hard and pushing fast.

  • If you learned CPR by doing mouth-to-mouth, it still works; that has not changed. hands-only CPR was developed for bystanders to get over the hurdle of not doing anything because they didn’t want to put their mouth on somebody.

  • The bystanders and first responders who start hands-only CPR early make a huge difference in saving a person’s life.

  • It is recommended that you continue hands-only CPR until Emergency Medical Services arrives.

  • Minnesota has one of the best Good Samaritan laws in the United States. If you stop to help and try do something to try to save the person’s life, you cannot be sued in the state of Minnesota unless you have done something grossly negligent.

If someone wants to learn more about hands-only CPR or about taking a CPR class should contact Julie Jenson, EMS Education, at (218) 632-8738.

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