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Student Profile: Grace Firestone, Class of 2020

01/18/19

Grace Firestone was your “average” high school go-getter: a soccer player with Division I aspirations, a student council member, an active participant in club life. She was getting ready for college and what was in store for her—until the day she went to her mother’s bedroom, said “I don’t feel well,” and collapsed. Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) had struck.

Paramedics arrived three minutes later and immediately began resuscitation, shocking her six times with an AED and drilling into her shin in order to begin IV infusions after her veins began to collapse. Firestone’s heart stopped three times that night, but each time doctors brought her back.

Now, she’s a third-year student at SKMC and an advocate for heart health. Here she talks about her walk back from the brink and the perspective she brings to her chosen vocation.

What was it like waking up?

I was in the hospital for 10 days and had been in a medically induced coma. One of the only things I remember from the hospital was a nurse bringing in an evaluation to connect the letters of the alphabet and draw three-dimensional blocks. That was really difficult for me and was one of the first inklings of my situation.

I was hoping to play DI soccer in college. In my mind I just was ready to get training again and was looking forward to PT. They brought me into a room that was mostly elderly people and had me perform tasks like climbing a set of three stairs and just walking in general. It was hard. It’s exhausting, and so, again, it was just the realization that this did hit me and I am affected by it, because I was 18, and I think you have the feeling of being invincible to some extent or whatever else.

How has this informed your post-recovery interests?

I’ve helped to start a Cardiovascular Society at SKMC. We bring in speakers and organize events to raise awareness about causes and treatments to heart disease. I’m really involved in advocacy, especially with the American Heart Association, bringing CPR education and AED placement to people’s attention.

I’m on local committees and a national advocacy coordinating committee that meets biannually in Texas. As part of that, I’ll speak at different events, share my story, and help people put a face and name to the issue. I was also part of a group that went to Harrisburg and met with some legislators about that CPR education. I’m usually the youngest person at some of these meetings.

How have your experiences impacted your education?

Getting to this point is kind of surreal. It 100 percent puts a fire under me to dedicate my entire life to honestly saying thank you and showing how much the care they put in that night to save my life means.

On the clinical side, I think I can really relate to patients and communicate that whatever happened or your diagnosis now doesn’t have to define the rest of your life in a negative way. Being in the hospital as a med student, you have more time than almost any other medical staff. So you get to speak to the patients and learn their stories, not just their diagnoses. You also interact with the family members, and when I see people there, I see my family.

In a sense, I know how hard it was for them, and they want to be strong and there for their family member who’s sick, but they’re hurting too. I’m able to see their pain because of my own experiences as a patient. I just try to acknowledge them and let them know it’s great that they’re present.

What’s your favorite part of clinical rotations?

I think it’s seeing doctors who are so adept at explaining complex disease processes to patients that you can see when the light goes on. Patients are like “Oh, thank you” because no one’s really explained their situation to them before. Now they can make educated decisions together with their doctors and they’re not seen as a “difficult patient,” because they know what’s going on and they can be comfortable with what you’re doing.