Glad to be alive: Digipen student survives sudden cardiac arrest, meets her lifesavers

Kayla Oswald (center) speaks with Matt Balser, a firefighter with the Redmond Fire Department. Balser was in the first aid car to arrive at DigiPen Institute of Technology when Oswald, a senior at the school, went into cardiac arrest on Feb. 2. - Samantha Pak, Redmond Reporter
Kayla Oswald (center) speaks with Matt Balser, a firefighter with the Redmond Fire Department. Balser was in the first aid car to arrive at DigiPen Institute of Technology when Oswald, a senior at the school, went into cardiac arrest on Feb. 2.
— image credit: Samantha Pak, Redmond Reporter

Dressed in blue jeans, a graphic t-shirt and black hooded jacket, Kayla Oswald looks like a typical student at DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond.

But underneath her college student threads is an internal defibrillator inserted into her chest, ready to give her a shock if her heart stops beating.

The 22-year-old has only had the device for a few weeks after she went into cardiac arrest on Feb. 2 in the middle of a portfolio review.

"I just keeled over randomly, it seems like," said Oswald, who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in digital arts and animation.

She doesn't remember what happened but was told she slumped over in her seat and began convulsing. Others in the room thought she was having a seizure and relayed this information to the 911 operator.


Matt Balser, a firefighter with the Redmond Fire Department (RFD), arrived on the scene about four minutes after 911 was called and recognized almost immediately that Oswald had actually gone into cardiac arrest as she was unconscious, unresponsive, not breathing and had no pulse.

Oswald said the convulsions were her body's way of trying to get air.

Balser said they called in for extra help from Redmond Medic One, which is standard procedure any time there is a cardiac arrest.

While they waited for Medic One to arrive, Balser said they initiated cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), gave her oxygen and used an automated external defibrillator (AED) to shock her.

Alex Tierra and Jeff Crowe, paramedics with Medic One, arrived at the tech school shortly after the firefighters.

"We were four minutes behind the aid car," Crowe said.

Paramedics, Crowe and Tierra are the next level of care from the fire department in a medical emergency and unlike firefighters, they are able to intubate patients and administer medication.

Oswald was rushed to Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland and 26 minutes after 911 was called — just as they arrived at the hospital — Oswald's pulse returned.

Tierra said 26 minutes without a pulse is a long time and that the prognosis for Oswald was not good. He, Crowe and others who responded to Oswald's call said going home that night was difficult.


Oswald was in the hospital from Feb. 2-11 and while she was there, many of the first responders from that day visited her.

The DigiPen senior said she doesn't remember much from the days leading up to Feb. 2 and immediately following, so she only has vague recollections of these visits.

However, on March 2, exactly one month after the incident, Oswald officially met the team who helped save her life during a reunion at DigiPen.

"It's almost overwhelming," she said. "Without them, I would be dead."

Oswald said, "thank you" doesn't cover everything she would like to say to everyone and wished she could think of another word to convey how grateful she is.

Balser told her they were just doing their jobs and seeing her up and about is the reason they do what they do.

"To me, it's a paycheck," he said about seeing Oswald well. "It doesn't get any better."

Oswald's mother Natalie Oswald was also at the reunion at DigiPen and was just as grateful. She said many of the medics and firefighters also spent time at the hospital the day Kayla was admitted and their presence and kindness helped her stay calm, answer questions and make phone calls.

"It's devastating," Natalie said about learning what happened to Kayla. "It's your child. I knew she was in good hands at Evergreen, but you think it can't happen to you."


DigiPen has had medical emergencies on campus in the past, but Kayla was the first person since the school opened in 1998 to go into cardiac arrest.

Director of Student Affairs Gordon Dutrisac said this event is prompting the school to do two things. First, they will work with RFD in the next few months to set up hands-only CPR training sessions for students and staff as well as include training during their new student orientations. Heart health will also be emphasized more in the school's wellness program, which focuses on nutrition, stress and other issues that may affect college-age students.

Dutrisac said DigiPen will also work with the Nick of Time Foundation, a non-profit focused on spreading awareness about sudden cardiac arrest, to provide free screenings to detect any possible heart conditions.

Natalie said she is glad to see DigiPen use her daughter's experience as an opportunity to educate students and educators at the school.

"I feel this school is leading not only in the gaming industry," she said. "It's wanting to learn from this situation. What more can you ask?"

Kayla said she will definitely become CPR certified since it saved her life, but also noted how important it is for others to know CPR since cardiac arrest can happen to anyone — even someone who has no history of a heart condition like her.

Kayla has had several tests done but doctors still don't know what caused her cardiac arrest. She will be going back for more tests later this month.In the meantime, Kayla goes about her life with the internal defibrillator in her chest. She said she can only feel it along her side and does have a bit of discomfort if she sleeps on her side.

"But you know, I'm alive," she said. "So I can't complain."

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