NIU employee saves life of coworker, friend

Tina Erickson (left) and her husband Brad Erickson hold hands. Before Tina Erickson collapsed and stopped breathing at the university’s Campus Mail Services Sept. 12, she had no prior health issues, Brad Erickson said. Now she is undergoing tests to reach a diagnosis for what caused her collapse.

By Jackie Nevarez

Gail Smith, 58, shouldn’t have been in the university’s Campus Mail Services when Tina Erickson, 53, collapsed and stopped breathing.

On Sept. 12, Erickson and Smith went to lunch and returned to work at about 2 p.m. Tina Erickson is a mailing equipment expediter for Campus Mail Services, where she has worked for more than 28 years, while Smith began working for Campus Mail Services in August. Smith said she usually only worked 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., but on that day she took over her co-worker’s shift.

Before the collapse, Erickson said she had a great connection with Smith and spoke to her frequently.

“We didn’t know each other at all, [but when we met] it just felt like I had known her,” Erickson said. “Like an automatic instant reaction … I felt good about her.”

About 10 minutes after they returned from lunch, Erickson collapsed and stopped breathing and her heart stopped beating. Smith was alone with Erickson and ran to her. Erickson said she does not remember collapsing, nor even feeling ill that day.

“She was probably 4 feet from me at the time and I ran over and turned her completely over on her back, pulled her a little bit from under the desk and I just started shaking her … and nothing, no response,” Smith said. “No breathing, no nothing.”

As a massage therapist, Smith was required to take a CPR course in 2006 — the last time she had any training. Smith said her instructor was terrible and her class did not properly learn to perform CPR, so she hoped she would never have to use it. But, Smith still managed to tilt Erickson’s head back and begin performing chest compressions.

“This was total divine intervention because first of all I wasn’t supposed to be there and the doctors say it was the quick response of the compressions that actually saved her from having any neurological damage [or] organ damage,” Smith said.

Dawn Fritsch, a manager of Campus Mail Services who has since retired, instructed co-worker Stefanie Zimmerman to call 911 after she saw Smith performing CPR on Erickson. Paramedics arrived and worked on resuscitating Erickson for more than 20 minutes, with more than 15 NIU police officers standing by, Smith said. Erickson was revived at Kishwaukee Hospital.

Erickson’s husband, Brad Erickson, 59, said he was at home when he heard the news of his wife’s collapse. She had just dropped him off from lunch.

He was “slightly shocked, I guess, because she’s never had any health issues,” Brad Erickson said. “I tried to remain calm because I had to get to the hospital.”

Smith said Emergency Room cardiologist Dr. James Kinn told Erickson’s family and friends Erickson’s condition was a minute-to-minute situation, and only one in 20 survive the type of sudden heart failure Erickson had experienced. He told her family they would need to consider long-term care and asked if Erickson was an organ donor, Smith said.

“The cardiologist came in and said ‘I’m not going to mince words, this is bad, this is real bad,’ he said,” Smith said.

Placed on life support in the Intensive Care Unit, Erickson did not respond until the day after the incident when she woke up and recognized her mother at her bedside. A day after that, on Sept. 14, Erickson was removed from life support. She was transferred to Central DuPage Hospital where Dr. Omeed Zardkoohi treated her and implanted a defibrillator in her chest. She returned home on Sept. 18, less than a week from the incident.

It took two weeks for Erickson to recognize Smith, as her memory was impaired. Erickson makes sure to write everything down, including conversations with her mother about the incident, a habit she picked up from having to take her husband to doctor’s appointments after his kidney transplant.

Now, Erickson is undergoing tests to find what caused her collapse. By December, she said she expects to know if she can return to work.

Erickson said Smith is her best friend and they try to talk regularly. Both said their lives haven’t changed, but they make sure to minimize stress as much as possible.

“Thank you, Gail,” Erickson said to Smith. “All else I can say is miracles do happen.”