Blog of Bloodworks Northwest

The Day a Heart Stood Still - Sue Nixon (S1 E10)

The remarkable true story of how Seattle’s Sue Nixon owes her life to the quick response of genuine Good Samaritans and paramedics at Medic One, the tireless research of scientists at Bloodworks Northwest’s Research Institute, and the blood donations of people she may never meet. But it all started The Day a Heart Stood Still.  

Listen below or read on for a full transcript.

Sue: I was driving up the hill and, out of the blue, had a cardiac arrest and basically died on in my car on the side of the road. My heart had stopped, my breathing had stopped, and I was dead.

John: Hi, I’m John Yeager, and you’re listening to “Bloodworks 101.” “Bloodworks 101” is produced by your friends here at Bloodworks Northwest in hopes that you’ll be either educated or inspired to give time, money, or blood. All right. This is one of those stories that, to this day, give Sue Nixon chills. Sue is the Chief Marketing Officer here at Bloodworks Northwest. Full disclosure, she’s our boss.

In 2007, Sue Nixon founded her own agency to guide clients in the use of customer insight to align brands, messaging, and business strategies to build business and grow revenue. Nixon has been here since 2016 when she took a job with one of her clients. It was Bloodworks Northwest. She has more than 25 years of leadership and consulting experience in marketing, branding, and communications. But that’s just one side of Sue Nixon.

Fly me to the moon

And Let me play among the stars

Sue: Marketer by day, vocalist by night.

And let me see what spring is like

On a-Jupiter and Mars.

John: That’s Sue Nixon right there. Okay. It’s important to remember that every good story has a beginning, a middle, an end, and surprise. This story starts in Seattle, Washington in the East Lake neighborhood near Sue’s home on Lake Union. It was Valentine’s Day, 2007, the day a heart stood still. It’s a day that still makes Sue Nixon laugh.

Sue: I’m not laughing because it was funny, but I’m laughing because it was just probably the most extraordinary day of my life.

John: It was about 11:30 in the morning.

Sue: And I was on my way to Rotary. And I was driving up the hill, and, out of the blue, had a cardiac arrest and basically died in my car on the side of the road. My heart had stopped, my breathing had stopped, and I was dead.

Woman: 11:44 hours. Medic response.

Sue: So, I had caused an accident, and people around me were afraid. They didn’t know what was going on, and were all…you know, there were about eight people apparently standing around me and a nurse just happened to drive by. She was driving down the hill on our way to get some coffee because she had had unexpectedly had the day off. So, she saw something was going on, pulled over, got out of her car, and noticed instantly that I wasn’t breathing and that my heart was not beating. And she said, “She’s dead. We’ve got to get her out of the car.”

And she pulled me to the side of the road and started giving me CPR. It happened to be that there was a postman who also knew CPR and he got down and helped her. So, it turned out for eight minutes, they gave me CPR, bystander CPR. And, I mean, it is so humbling to talk about because had they not been there, I would not have made it because that’s too long for your brain to go without oxygen and for your body to survive. They basically sustained my life until the medics and the firefighters arrived on scene and were able to shock me. I think it took three times to get my heart to start beating again, and they rushed me at that point to Harbor View where I was treated.

John: Sue Nixon would recover from that cardiac arrest, but now let’s fast forward to about six years ago when Sue Nixon came through the doors at what was then the Puget Sound Blood Center. Sue was instrumental in the name change in 2015 to Bloodworks Northwest. She’d started to work with the then-President and CEO of Bloodworks, Dr. Jim AuBuchon.

Sue: Well, I worked with them on the name change back in 2014 and got to learn about both the blood industry and the organization, and was so taken with what they do, and the mission, and how many lives were impacted. And when I was thinking about digging in a little deeper to something, I had spent a year as Seattle Rotary president and loved just getting my hands and heart into service at a deeper level.

John: She spoke with Dr. AuBuchon about the need for marketing at Bloodworks, knowing probably better than most the importance of story. For Sue Nixon, the message is…

Sue: Lining up the interests of the person hearing the message with the interests of the person sending the message. So, that’s, kinda, like, the basic communications 101. So, the art and the mission of it is making sure those things line up in a way that’s super meaningful to both. So, in the case of Bloodworks, it’s figuring out what motivates people to want to engage with the community, want to engage with the organization, and figuring out the most powerful way to get that message to them.

John: Now, let’s fast forward a couple of years later. Sue Nixon is finding real meaning in the job she’s had in leadership at Bloodworks when little did she know her star would take another turn that she could have never predicted. It’s spring 2019 and wouldn’t you know it, Sue Nixon was in her car again.

Sue: I was driving to a meeting and a siren was going off in my chest. I mean, it was literally like [vocalization] about that loud. So, I have a defibrillator because I have heart issues. And sometimes my heart stops and the defibrillator is at the ready and it will shock me, which isn’t super fun, but it’s a good thing because it saved my life three times since my 2007 incident.

So, I thought, “Well, I have a new Apple watch. Maybe the watch is, like, triggering something in the device.” So, I just moved my wrist away and an hour later, top of the hour, it starts doing it again. And I’m still driving, I was driving to Portland, and I thought, “What is going on?” And so I called my cardiologist and sure enough, they said, “Something’s going on with your device. So, when you get back in town, you need to come in and we’ll check it out.”

So, the unfortunate thing was it did that at the top of the hour for the entire day. So, I had to deal with it during meetings, but everybody was very gracious. And I wasn’t super alarmed literally and figuratively but went in to check it out and sure enough, one of my leads went bad. So, one of the leads went bad. They sent me home because I have a second backup lead in my device. So, that was awesome. But two days later at 1 in the morning, the sirens started again.

So, I went in and they checked it out and sure enough, both leads had gone bad. So, they admitted me into the hospital because without a device, I’m not covered and my heart stopped sometimes. So, I was in the hospital until they were able to get me into an external defibrillator, which was, kind of, like a little vest covered with tinfoil with little pads on it and a battery pack that I wore around looking like a rental car agent for a bit of time, about a month. So, that was covering me until they could do surgery and replace the device.

John: So, they did surgery to replace the device and discovered…

Sue: They needed to take the device that I have in my chest out and replace it with a newer version. And to do that, they were trying to get the leads out that are actually inside of my heart. And they had a hard time doing that. And so, when they were in there, they did an endoscopic echo, which is basically they go down your throat and are able to see your heart at a really good angle. And the amazing thing is when they were in there doing that, they saw that my heart was quite enlarged.

And they were able to see my valve, my mitral valve, which I knew had issues, but they were able to see that it was really bad. So, when I woke up from surgery, they were like, “Well, the good news is mostly we were able to remove the old device and we got the new one in there, but we discovered that your valve needs to be replaced really, really soon.” So, people are really good at that, and I’m thrilled about where we live because they are incredible heart surgeons in the region. So, I healed up and we booked the next surgery.

John: In the meantime, that valve had given her a blood disorder. Now, before we go any further, have you ever heard of Von Willebrand disease? Well, neither had Sue Nixon.

Sue: So, this is crazy. Well, I won’t get into too many details, but when I got out of my first surgery, my entire torso was, like, blue, like the entire thing. And I’m like, I, kind of, was noticing I bruise easily, but literally from, like, mid-thigh up to my shoulders, I was just blue. So, when I talked to my doctor about it, my cardiologist about it, they said, “You need to see a blood specialist because that is just not normal. And it might take a while to get in and dah, dah, dah.” So, I said, “Well, actually, I work at Bloodworks, and I think I might be able to chase down a hematologist.”

So, I talked to our Medical Director, Dr. Wu. And within minutes, she had me in conversation with Dr. Barb Konkle, who is just…she works with our Washington Center for Bleeding Disorders, saw me, and checked me out, and a few days later called and said, “Sue, you have acquired Von Willebrand disease.” And basically what that means is because my valve was bad, it was sharing off the proteins that cause your blood to clot and making it so it wasn’t clotting well. That’s my layman’s way to describe it.

So, I essentially had acquired Von Willebrand’s disease because of my bad valve that the amazing folks here were able to identify and treat so that… Well, they didn’t have to treat it. They had to be ready for my next surgery because obviously, open-heart surgery, which was the next venture that I had in front of me is a pretty challenging surgery. And bleeding’s an issue anyway and bleeding, if you have a disorder, is a pretty important thing for them to be prepared for. So, there was that.

John: I was doing a podcast interview with Tom Newman the day that you were in the hospital. We don’t necessarily have to mention the hospital, but there was a delivery of blood products that day. And Tom went into the hospital, and I followed him in, and I got some sound. And the processor there at the hospital pointed, you know, over… I shouldn’t actually point to it. I saw the whiteboard, and it had about five names on it and third from the bottom was Sue Nixon. And I said, “Hey, I know her. She’s getting blood from the place where I work.”

Sue: Okay. Total chills right now. I mean, honestly, I had no idea that I actually would need blood products. I think part of it was just good, healthy human denial. But the fact that you saw that, and when you told me that, it blew my mind. Because the work that we do every day, I don’t think any of us think it’ll ever be us, that we’ll be the ones that will need it and that it’s ready on the shelf for me. Like, that’s crazy. And I learned later that I used platelets, plasma, and cryo, which are three different products that we, you know, manufacture and that the donors volunteer to donate. And they didn’t know me. I mean, how cool is that? Totally biased to that, but I think that’s super cool.

John: So, then a few months after that, you recovered and you came back to work with us. And you went to a presentation by some of the researchers at the research institute and one of them was Dr. Chung, I believe.

Sue: Yes.

John: And tell me what he told you.

Sue: Well, I am not a scientist, so I will not get this accurate I’m sure. The upshot is that he was the one that helped discover the protein, I believe, that they figured out was the thing that makes your blood clot or not clot when you have Von Willebrand disease. So, it just blew my mind and his delight in the work that he did and the fact that that was happening years and years and years before I needed it. And all the work of these people are laying the groundwork of the thing that is gonna save my life later. It’s so humbling and moving, and I just was blown away.

John: This is remarkable, right?

Sue: Right. It just keeps coming back around. When I was little, my grandma used to tell me, you know, “You get what you give, honey, and generosity is contagious. Make it contagious.” And I feel like I’m surrounded by people who have done that, and I get to be the recipient of this goodness. If I could do anything that pays it forward, man, that’s worth doing.

John: But there was one more page in this story that Sue Nixon felt she had to share. Remember that original cardiac arrest?

Sue: So, I live on a houseboat, and it’s a really warm, lovely community and a close community, literally, just side by side. And I heard a knock on my door at about 11:30 at night a few weeks ago, and my neighbor who’s 82 had fallen and his wife was asking for some help. So, I went over there and we just weren’t able to get him up and he wasn’t seeming well. And so, you know, I’d had had an amazing experience with 911 and, you know, we needed to call and get some help. So, we did and four lovely humans came. They were the first responders and firefighters, one medic, and they were helping my neighbor.

And it was super emotional for me to watch because I’m watching the way they cared for him, and this one individual, in particular, she was just a gorgeous caretaker. It was just beautiful to watch her be so in control and commanding of the situation, but also so gentle with him. And as they were leaving, I just had to tell him. I just said, “Thank you. In 2007, folks like you showed up on the scene for me and saved my life. I don’t know how to thank you, but please just know how much you impacted me.”

And the woman who I was admiring turned around, looked at me, and she said, “Oh my God. Sue, I think I was there.” And she started telling me my story. You were on Lynn Street almost to Borin, and you had a cardiac arrest. And we showed up on the scene, and you were wearing a black jacket with, kind of, a leopard skin lining on. And I remember feeling bad to cut it off, but we were…” And tears started welling up, and I’m like, not only did she…she was on the scene, she was the one that saved my life that day and remembered all of it 13 years later.

I was just, “Oh my God.” That first responder with that, sort of, just crystal clear detail remembrance of that day, I was speechless. I just hugged her and won’t her go. I just hugged her. And her response was really meaningful to me because she said, “I had no idea you made it. I had no idea you made it.” She just said that a few times. Amazing.

John: I usually ask people at this point a question that I’ve asked throughout my career as a broadcaster, right. Always sums it up, you know, if I ask them, “What’s the story all about?” I don’t think I need to ask you that.

Sue: You know, when you… It’s so hard to capture in a phrase, but I used the word “generous.” I just think humans have so much power to impact one another’s lives. And when I look at my life and I see the constellation of touchpoints of ways that people were generous with me and the ripple that that has had, it will forever change the way I see my life and I see how we entwined with one another. That’s the takeaway for me. Every single moment of the day, it has changed me.

John: And this place saved your life and you get a paycheck.

Sue: I know. I know, right?

John: So, what’s your message?

Sue: What is my message? It’s gotta be thank you. Thank you so much. For all the people who decide in a moment of a day to do something generous for another and wonder if it has impact, my story is. It sure the heck does it? It absolutely does. Thank you.

Help me see what spring is like

John: Today, Sue Nixon has happy, and healthy, and savoring each precious moment she has on earth, given to her by the goodness of first responders, a couple of good Samaritans, and by research from a team of world-class doctors, and by a company of those donors she may never know but in whose hands her life has simply and forever been saved. I’m John Yeager for “Bloodworks 101.”

You are all I long for,

All I worship and adore,

In other words, please be true,

In other words, I love you,

In other words, I love you.

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September 1, 2020 4:15PM

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