Michael Liu’s wife, Mary,  gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Mikayla, six months after she nearly lost her husband.  Photo by Ben Tankersley

VON KURTZE HAD similar concerns after the incident with Liu. Was there more she could have done? Did she help save a life or simply witness a man’s death? She had no way of knowing what happened next. She and Alexandra didn’t even know Liu’s name—when the ambulance doors closed, they assumed they would never see him again. Privacy laws prevent health care workers from providing information about a patient, and Von Kurtze didn’t know if she should even try to seek it out.

While Von Kurtze, her daughter, and first responders were scrambling to save Liu, his wife, Mary, was relaxing at home just a mile away. She cherished the times when her husband took Nathan for a run and she could relax for a few minutes alone. Mary knew those moments would become even more rare in the future. She was 11 weeks pregnant. She and Liu, who met at church, had only recently told a few friends.

The police used Liu’s phone to call Mary, but couldn’t reach her because she had left her phone downstairs in their King Farm town house. She found out something was wrong when an officer came to her front door and told her she needed to pick up her son at the park because her husband had been taken to the hospital. The officer reassured her that Nathan was OK—police officers were entertaining him with YouTube videos—but he had no details about her husband’s condition.

At the hospital, she learned that her husband had been defibrillated several times, that his heart was now beating on its own, and that he had even started breathing on his own—a good sign. But doctors said he probably had been in cardiac arrest for about 10 minutes, and it only takes a few minutes without oxygen for brain cells to begin dying.

Liu remained in a medically-induced coma in the intensive care unit at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center as the staff initiated the hypothermia protocol. Recent studies have shown that there may be a beneficial effect to lowering the body temperature of a cardiac arrest victim in the first day or two after the incident.

“It’s been nothing short of miraculous,” Lieberman says of the impact of inducing hypothermia on cardiac arrest survivors.

During the hypothermia treatment, patients are kept heavily sedated to prevent seizures and other side effects. Because of the sedation, doctors cannot tell for days whether a cardiac arrest survivor’s brain will function normally when—or if—that person wakes up.

“At that point, I knew that it looked…really, really, really bad,” Mary says. Doctors wouldn’t commit to a prognosis, telling her they would have to wait and see. That Friday, 48 hours after Liu collapsed in the park, his family started to realize that he might never wake up.

“That was probably the worst night for all of us,” she says. “I was preparing to live life without him.” A friend recommended that Mary consider naming her baby after Michael.

Throughout the weekend, Liu showed minimal signs of life, biting his breathing tube when the sedation began to wear off. But he still wasn’t stable enough to wake up, forcing further sedation. His kidneys were failing, he developed lung problems, and he looked yellow and bloated. Finally, on Tuesday, May 20, after six nights of sitting vigil, Liu’s friends and relatives received their first piece of good news: An EEG scan of his brain showed activity—the initial indication that Liu was not brain dead. The next day, his neurologist told Mary that he graded Liu’s brain activity as a three out of five. “Not great, but not bad,” Mary recalls thinking.

Then, an MRI surprised everyone when the results indicated no signs of brain damage. And on Saturday, when his doctors tried weaning him off sedation, Liu woke up. He doesn’t remember his first words, but he recalls being annoyed that his family kept asking if he knew who they were. Of course he did, he says. What he didn’t know was why he was in the hospital. At first, his family told him it was pneumonia—not technically a lie, as that illness had appeared on the list of complications Liu experienced—because they didn’t want to cause too much stress.

A cardiologist later told Liu that his heart had stopped beating normally for an unknown reason and that without CPR and defibrillation, he would have died. The doctor said Liu could go back to his normal routine after he recovered, but first he would need to have an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) surgically placed next to his heart. An ICD recognizes when the heart experiences an abnormal rhythm and delivers a shock—hopefully averting cardiac arrest and restoring a normal heartbeat. Liu was also advised to find a running partner, someone who could get help if he were to collapse again. He could not believe what he was hearing.

SEVERAL WEEKS AFTER the incident, Von Kurtze received a call from a Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service official asking if she would come to a press conference at Travilah Fire Station 32 on Darnestown Road in Rockville, where she and Alexandra would be honored for their efforts to save Michael Liu, who also would be there.

“When she called me on the phone, I started to cry,” Von Kurtze says. It was the first time she had heard that Liu survived—and that he was OK.   

On Aug. 28, Liu and his wife met with Von Kurtze, her daughter and several of the responders who had helped save his life. It was his 32nd birthday. “I’m so touched to know that…I have a second chance at life and a second lease on life with my family,” Liu told television news crews.

Three months later, he and Mary were back at Shady Grove hospital, this time to celebrate the birth of their daughter, Mikayla.

Michael S. Gerber is a writer and consultant in Washington, D.C., and volunteers as a paramedic with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. To comment on this story, e-mail comments@bethesdamagazine.com.