It was the Fourth of July in 2009 and she was driving back to her family’s home in Bon Air from their vacation. From the car window, she could see fireworks shooting into the sky.
That’s the last thing Carolyn Powell, a Mechanicsville resident, remembers until she woke up in an ambulance on the way to a rehabilitation center in Charlottesville.
The next evening on July 5 that year, Powell was lying next to her youngest son and went into cardiac arrest, caused by a heart condition she has known as Long QT Syndrome, which can cause rapid heartbeats.
Flash forward five years to now.
Powell, 32, is alive and fairly healthy and she is sharing her story of that chaotic day that changed her life forever and the road to recovery in her first book, “The Heart to Survive.”
That night Powell’s heart stopped, her husband, Luke, eventually found her after their son started crying. Powell’s husband started to perform CPR even though she was pale and had no pulse, she recalls from stories she’s been told. Her husband called 911 and paramedics arrived but she had been without oxygen for about 15 to 20 minutes, she said.
“Which is a long time,” Powell said.
After a while, first responders were able to restart her heart and she was taken to Chippenham Hospital in Richmond, she said. Although Powell does not remember all these events, she knows what happened because her husband and other family members were able to recall that night’s incident and all the time she spent in the Richmond hospital.
For three weeks, Powell was in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.
“When I got there it was touch-and-go if I would even make it at all,” she said.
Things didn’t get much easier after being admitted into ICU.
Powell said during her second day in ICU, her heart stopped again and doctors told her husband and family that if she survived, she would be blind and would have to live in a long-term care facility. At that point, scans and X-rays showed that a big portion of her brain had been damaged from the incident and lack of oxygen that night.
“It was all really bad news,” she said.
This was on top of the heart condition. Powell said doctors diagnosed her with it when she was younger, but at that time there was not a lot of information out there on the condition and so no pacemaker was installed in her heart. At 19, she experienced one instance where she passed out but her heart was able to restart itself.
That day in 2009, her heart did not do that.
During her time at the hospital, Powell was stabilized and a defibrillator pacemaker was put in to avoid any future situations.
After three weeks, she was taken to the rehab center in Charlottesville and spent three months there. Powell had to completely re-learn all normal movements and daily life activities like brushing her teeth, eating, walking and putting on her clothes as well as dressing her two children.
“I had to literally relearn everything from start to finish,” Powell said.
After leaving the center, Powell and her family moved in with her husband’s parents in Ashland for a year, but she was not able to return to her job as a part-time dietitian at the University of Richmond. Then her family bought a one-story house down from her husband’s parents so that she could still get help taking care of the children when she needed it.
“We did what we had to do,” Powell said.
Although Powell has recovered for the most part, there are some long-term damages that she has to learn how to cope with. She had some visual deficits and has difficulty stabilizing herself when walking. As a result, she can no longer drive a car but is able to use a motorized scooter to ride with the kids to the neighborhood pool. When walking in public, Powell uses a walker to help stabilize herself.
“I can use the walker for the rest of my life versus what they told me,” Powell said, referring to the doctors’ projection that she may not be herself again and would have to live in a facility.
Because she has overcome many obstacles since the accident five years ago, Powell said she was motivated by friends and publishers to share her story and she hopes it’ll inspire others.
“I hope that people will read this story and whatever that they have going on in their lives, that they can just find some sort of inspirational piece in that,” Powell said.
“I think you have to find your motivation and that is what will help you get better. My motivation to get better was my kids,” she added.
And her kids were what got her through it all.