Cardiac nurse saves fellow runner to the beat of "Staying Alive"
There are a couple of distinctly different ways to explain the series of very fortunate events that put Nathan Taylor and Elaine Barnes on the same curb in Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood on the day that Taylor almost died.
And the two will probably never see eye to eye on it.
Taylor — a 46-year-old attorney and father of two young children — believes the fact that his heart suddenly decided to fail on him while he was running 12 feet in front of a woman who’d been a cardiac nurse for almost four decades was simply a stroke of extraordinarily good luck.
Barnes — that cardiac nurse — believes, without question, that she wound up directly behind Taylor in the Elizabeth 8K road race because she was put there by God.
In either event, these are the facts:
Taylor, who doesn’t identify as a runner and who says he was basically only running the race because the course goes by his house, collapsed into sudden cardiac arrest at about 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 24, on the grass on the side of Emerson Avenue.
Barnes, 62, who says she was basically only running the race because she got a discounted entry through her employer and who’d been pacing off of Taylor for several minutes, directed a bystander to call 911 and was the first to start chest compressions.
Pediatric nurse Christi Milledge (a former emergency room nurse) was the second runner to stop, and took the second round of compressions. Jennifer Gossett, another cardiac nurse (from a different hospital system, who had never met Barnes), abandoned her run to become the third piece of that rotation. Both say they were convinced he was dead.
But all three women and an unidentified man who joined in kept at it, and when the ambulance arrived, paramedics were able to shock Taylor’s heart back into a normal rhythm with just one jolt from the defibrillator.
By the time Taylor got to the hospital, he was alert and joking with medical personnel.
Doctors determined he had a 100 percent blockage of his left anterior descending artery; two days later, he had bypass surgery.
Perhaps the most amazing part of this story, however, was still to come.
Like any other morning — sort of
Looking back on it now, Taylor says, it all makes sense.
His father had coronary artery disease, and for the past few years, Taylor had been feeling more out of breath than usual during the early minutes of his adult soccer league games, or while warming into his workouts at the YMCA. But at the time, he never suspected he had a major health problem.
I guess this is just what being in your 40s feels like, he thought.
So on that particular Saturday in March, after he set off around the perimeter of Independence Park with more than 600 runners, he felt ... “normal.”
“I now recognize that what I had grown accustomed to is not normal,” Taylor says, “but ... the shortness of breath changes, they’d come to feel normal because they’d gone on for so long and the changes are so subtle. So I was running, I was suffering, but like I said, that was normal for me.”
At about the halfway point of the 5-mile race, Taylor made the sharp left onto Greenway Avenue, where up ahead he’d spy his 7-year-old daughter Viv and his 3-year-old son Landis playing in the yard with the neighbors’ kids. (This was a big part of Taylor’s rationale for running the Elizabeth 8K, which he’d done one other time before, in 2015: We can’t go get the car out of the driveway to go anywhere during the race, so, might as well run it.)
As he passed his house, he remembers giving his wife Erin a high-five and tapping Landis on the head. Buoyed by their support, Taylor continued along the route — right on Cameron, left on Fifth — but suddenly, things started to get fuzzy.
“I have a faint memory of reaching out for the ground,” he says. “When I went back (after getting out of the hospital) to the spot where I fell, it sort of rekindled this memory of, like, ‘I’m going down, I’m reaching out, I’m bracing for the clover,’ or whatever I fell in...”
And then everything went black.
She’d been keeping an eye on him
Elaine Barnes had never run this race before, and has a pretty dull explanation for why she decided to sign up.
“Novant (her employer, and a presenting sponsor of the event) was giving away a lot of free entries, so I applied — because I’m cheap,” says Barnes, who didn’t start running until she was in her 50s. “I did not get a free entry, but they were offering a discount, and I said, ‘Oh, what the heck. It’s a pretty area, it’s a nice time of year, it’s right near my work ... so I went ahead and registered.”
The story, of course, got much more interesting on the morning of March 24th, after the starting gun went off.
Somewhere along Seventh Street, as the crowd of runners began to thin out a couple of miles into the race, Barnes found herself staring at the back of a younger man who seemed to be moving at a pace that she thought she could keep up with.
She settled in almost directly behind him, shadowing him as he banked slightly left onto Caswell, then sharply left onto Greenway. She took note when he high-fived the woman in the Yale sweatshirt who was clearly his wife, and patted the head of the young boy who was clearly his son, and she thought it was so cool that the race took this man right by his front yard.
Barnes was still right on his tail when — just past the 5K mark — the man’s upper body started sagging and his legs appeared to turn to jello as he veered towards the curb on Emerson. Once he reached the grass, he collapsed into it.
There’s no telling how long it might have taken a non-medical professional to determine that he’d gone into cardiac arrest, but Barnes knew almost immediately. On top of that, just five days earlier, Barnes had led a CPR class for cardiac patients, and she still had “Stayin’ Alive” and its tempo of just over 100 beats per minute stuck in her head.
Within a few dozen seconds after this stranger’s heart stopped, Barnes was kneeling at Nathan Taylor’s side desperately trying to keep him alive.
They were sure he was dead
According to the American Heart Association, almost 90 percent of the more than 350,000 Americans who go into cardiac arrest outside of a hospital setting every year will die.
And it wasn’t looking good for Taylor.
“There were moments when we all looked at each other and went, ‘Oh s---, this guy’s dead,’” recalls Christi Milledge, a Levine Children’s Hospital nurse who was the second runner to stop to help. “I mean, he was blue. It wasn’t just a little bit of cyanosis around the lips; he looked dead at least a couple of times.”
“I have seen a lot of coded people,” says Atrium Health nurse Jennifer Gossett, the other cardiac specialist who assisted, “and he is not one that appeared to have anything left in him.”
While Taylor was being worked on, word spread quickly back to his wife Erin, who was still hanging out near the street. Panic-stricken, she raced alongside packs of runners, passing many to get to the spot where her husband had just been revived by paramedics. But he clearly still wasn’t out of the woods.
“He didn’t seem to really be focusing on anything. He didn’t really look at me, even though his eyes were open. And I just kind of put my hand on his shoulder, and leaned over, and I said, ‘Baby, I’m here. I love you so much,’” Erin Taylor says. She pauses. Her voice hitches. “Sorry, it still is hard to talk about. Because I didn’t know if that was gonna be the last time that I saw him alive.”
As it became clear their role was finished, Gossett, then Milledge, then Barnes all started running again; the race had become an afterthought, but they did have to get back to their cars. After she found her husband Brett at the finish line, Barnes collapsed into his arms, sobbing. Milledge bumped into Barnes not long thereafter, and the two women hugged and cried some more.
But unbeknownst to the shaken nurses, just two blocks away, Taylor already seemed to be full of life again as he lay on a gurney inside Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. “Did I win the race?” he wisecracked.
It’s almost unheard of.
“What happened to Mr. Taylor — from how he was when we first got there to how he ended up once he got to the hospital — that is very rare,” says Medic spokesman Lester Oliva. “Normally somebody doesn’t go from being in cardiac arrest to speaking and being with it in such a short period of time. So he was very, very lucky.”
How Taylor and Barnes would eventually be reunited, though, seems like an even more astonishing stroke of good luck. To explain:
Two days after the race, Taylor had heart bypass surgery at Presbyterian Hospital to restore normal blood flow to the obstructed coronary artery.
Anyone who has bypass surgery at Presbyterian is automatically referred to Novant Health’s cardiac rehabilitation center, and because that center is just one mile from his front door and barely two miles from his law firm’s offices on Tryon Street, he booked himself into its 12-week program.
Meanwhile, Barnes did a bit of sleuthing, and was able to determine that he had survived and was at Presbyterian. That following week, back at work, she found out that he’d had bypass surgery on Monday.
She also learned that Taylor was headed her way.
Because not only is Barnes a cardiac nurse, she’s a cardiac nurse at Novant’s cardiac rehab center. Taylor was scheduled to make his first visit to that very center, for orientation, on April 10. Barnes was scheduled to lead that orientation, and then would supervise portions of his cardiac exercise therapy, his nutrition education, and his counseling and stress management for the next three months.
She helped save him. Now she was going to nurse him back to health.
Is there a good explanation for this?
With a 100 percent blocked coronary artery, Taylor’s heart was basically a time bomb.
If it had failed him when he was, say, working out in the home gym he set up for himself in his garage over the winter, he would almost certainly be dead right now.
Even in a race with hundreds of other people around, his odds of survival — just from a strictly medical perspective — were not good. But then, what were the odds that he’d drop in front of a nurse who’d been in cardiac care for almost as long as he’d been alive, who’d just taught a CPR course, who’d had her eye on him for several minutes?
What were the odds two other nurses with experience giving CPR to people in cardiac arrest would show up and help? And in the end, what were the odds that by virtue of nothing other than standard operating procedure, he’d wind up doing his rehab with that first cardiac nurse at his side?
How do you explain it?
Taylor’s bailiwick as an attorney is financial litigation; he’s analytical by nature and chooses his words carefully, seeming to take great pains to give statements that are pinpoint accurate and to make judgments that are scientifically logical. He’s not religious. He doesn’t believe in miracles.
“I’m just thankful to everybody in the chain of events,” he says, “including Elaine. I know there’s sort of a fantastic coincidence there, that she’s a cardiac nurse. ... But running a race sponsored by a hospital with a lot of medical personnel signed up — I mean, that is just sort of coincidence.
“Then on the survivability ... I mean, if it’s a one-in-a-thousand chance, somebody’s gonna be that one, and it was me. That’s how I see it. I recognize it could have happened a lot of other places and I would not have made it. I was just very, very fortunate.”
Barnes — a career nurse who was clearly born to be in a helping profession, someone who seems more comfortable with a hug than a handshake — has a vastly different view.
“Nothing happens by chance,” she says. “I was meant to be there, I was meant to run that race, I was meant to be behind him. God put me there. That’s the way I feel. Because I can’t explain it any other way.”
When Nathan’s wife, Erin, met Barnes after she led the orientation at the rehab center, Barnes said to her: “God was there that day.”
Erin Taylor replied, good-naturedly: “No, you were there that day. You get the credit for this, Elaine.”
“She definitely was trying to give God credit here,” Erin says, “and we were like, ‘No, no, this was you and your quick thinking and good CPR skills. It was kind of funny. The three of us all sort of laughed about it. ... And I mean, I’ve talked to other people, friends and colleagues that I’ve told the story to, and there’s one guy who was like, ‘You don’t see God’s hand in all of this?’ And I said, ‘No, not really, sorry.’ I don’t know, it just hasn’t really changed our stance on that.”
It actually hasn’t changed their stance on much of anything. Asked how all of this might have altered his perspective on life, Taylor simply says he was fortunate before this happened — good life, good wife, good kids, appreciated his job and his house and his neighbors — and that all still holds true.
The only difference he can think of: He says he’s always been “notoriously cheap,” but admits this has made him less so. (“We should probably spend a little bit of our money before I die again,” he recently told his wife.)
Of course, people who believe in miracles might be incredulous that he doesn’t see this as one, that his only epiphany was that he should buy a few more things for himself and his family. Then again, people who believe in coincidences might think it’s perfectly understandable for Taylor to be grateful to those who helped but to otherwise want to quietly return his focus to his loved ones.
In either event, these are the facts: Nathan Taylor is still alive, still there for his wife and kids, despite awfully unfavorable odds; and Elaine Barnes is at least partially responsible for saving his life.
No matter what your beliefs are, those are things worth celebrating.
As they sat next to each other after one of Taylor’s recent workouts at the cardiac rehab center, the differences in how they view the ordeal shined through again as they reviewed their experiences and tried to put a bow on it all.
“I was grateful that God saw to it that he was gonna make it and live a long life with his family,” says Barnes, her nurturing spirit on full display. “It wouldn’t have been the same had he not — I mean, we wouldn’t be sitting here and —”
Then Taylor cuts in with the most logical, most accurate statement he could possibly make: “It’s not as good a story if I don’t survive, is it?”