Rhonda Reilly trained for months to run her first half-marathon.
The 59-year-old from Athens, Ohio, was at her summer cottage in Ludington, Michigan, on Aug. 7, 2018 when she decided to continue training with a 4-mile run along Hamlin Lake. The picturesque setting on a warm summer afternoon seemed to present a perfect opportunity to take a break from preparing for a visitor.
Paula Milligan, a nurse at Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital, drove home from work that day along the same route. While driving on a road atop a bluff overlooking the lake, she noticed two bicyclists standing over a woman lying in the roadway.
The woman happened to be Rhonda. Face down, blood oozed from her head. At first, it appeared she may have been hit by a car. Milligan used her nursing skills to assess what may have happened.
“She was blue, which gave me an idea she had either a heart or lung issue,” Milligan recalled. “Once I rolled her over, I noticed there were no injuries to her hands or wrists. She also had sores on her knees which gave me an indication she had flopped down on the pavement.”
Rhonda suffered cardiac arrest. Milligan immediately began CPR.
“When I started compressions, her color started to come back and I’d get an occasional agonal breath,” Milligan recalled. “I just kept pumping hard to keep her color good and to protect brain function. I had no idea how long she’d been there.”
Milligan performed CPR for about 18 minutes before first responders arrived with an automated external defibrillator. They shocked Rhonda twice with the AED before rushing her to Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital.
When Rhonda arrived in the emergency room, she had no form of identification on her. She went running that afternoon without her phone or any belongings.
Back at their cottage, Rhonda’s husband, Steve, began to worry. His wife’s run was taking longer than expected.
“I drove around for two hours looking for her,” Steve said. “I thought she may have taken a wrong turn and got lost. Finally, I called the hospital to see if anyone matching her description had come in. That’s when they told me what had happened and that she had been airlifted to Grand Rapids. I found out later that I had driven by where they had already rescued her.”
A superhero nurse
Rhonda credits Milligan with saving her life.
“I was very close to being dead,” Rhonda said. “I was blue when she found me. Less than 10 percent of people who have cardiac arrest outside of the home survive. Had she not found me and started CPR right away, I wouldn’t be here.”
Milligan, however, is modest about her lifesaving efforts.
“I don’t feel I did anything different than any other nurse would’ve done,” she said. “It just happened to be that I was the one who came across this person and responded to her.”
After being released from the hospital, the two reunited with a surprise visit Milligan made to Rhonda and Steve’s cottage.
“Paula is amazing,” Rhonda said with a smile. “She’s such a fun and happy person. We now have a special bond that will last a lifetime. This just goes to show that one person can really make a difference.”
Don’t take good health for granted
Rhonda appeared to be the model of good health. She didn’t take medication, had great blood pressure and maintained her physical fitness.
Doctors and nurses at the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center stabilized Rhonda and determined a small blockage in an artery at the bottom of her heart caused her cardiac arrest.
She spent nine days in the hospital, including four days in the intensive care unit. A defibrillator was placed in her chest to help protect against future cardiac arrests.
“You can be the perfect picture of good health and still have something like this happen,” Steve said. “Don’t think you’re immune just because you’re fit and a runner.”
Everyone should be prepared to do CPR
There are two lessons the couple wants people to learn from Rhonda’s incident.
First, always carry identification if you are exercising alone.
“Steve didn’t know what was happening or where I was,” Rhonda said. “I didn’t have any ID on me. It would’ve been so much easier for my husband if someone could’ve called him to let him know what was happening.”
There are several different types of wearable identification items runners can wear such as a wristband ID, shoe tag, pocket card and necklaces.
More importantly, Rhonda knows CPR saved her life and urges everyone to learn basic CPR skills.
“It’s really not that hard to learn CPR and the difference you can make is incredible,” she said.