Mary Jo Cipollini: A Survivor’s Story

 01 Apr 2003

Submitted by: Mary Jo Cipollini, 41
Poughkeepsie, NY

Mary Jo Cipollini nearly died the day she dropped her groceries, collapsed in a parking lot and landed face first on a gallon of milk. She thinks that milk might have saved her face. But she knows that CPR saved her life. She was only 36.

Mary Jo was shopping for groceries at the local Price Chopper in Poughkeepsie, NY. She received a phone call from her six-year-old daughter’s school: Ally had an ear infection and needed to be picked up. “I checked out with seven bags on my arm.”

Mary Jo recalls that as she crossed the parking lot to get to her car she began to jerk. “I tried to get my balance but dropped my bags and fell. Someone called 9-1-1 and someone else yelled into the store for help.”

Produce Manager Jim Fleming responded. When he dashed to the parking lot, he discovered that Mary Jo didn’t have a pulse. He performed CPR while a bystander tried to get her pulse. When the ambulance arrived, the EMTs used an AED (automated external defibrillator) twice to restart her heart. Then she was rushed to the hospital.

Mary Jo said the police delivered the news to her husband, Joseph, at work. They got the keys out of his hands before he could drive. His question: “’Will she be alive when I get there?’ They said they didn’t know.”

In the ER, they ran test after test. “They basically told my husband that if I survived the first night I would need long-term rehabilitation. They put Tommy, my two-year-old son, on my chest and then they would yell to wake me up. I didn’t recognize anyone.”

After many days in the hospital, Mary Jo learned she had ventricular fibrillation, a condition in which the heart's electrical activity becomes disordered and the heart pumps little or no blood. She had a pacemaker/defibrillator implanted.

At home, adjusting to life with a pacemaker wasn’t easy. Mary Jo ticks off a short list of what she couldn’t do: be left alone, carry Tommy, drive or even remember the name of a person she just met a moment before. “My short-term memory took a big hit because I was deprived of oxygen for so long. I gradually recognized my family. I had minimal damage to my heart, which is a miracle.” Today, Mary Jo is mostly recovered and has resumed her active lifestyle with her husband and Ally, now 10, and Tommy, 6. She still has trouble with her memory and visits her doctor every two months, but is grateful for her life.

Mary Jo knows she owes her “second chance” to Jim Fleming’s knowledge of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), a combination of rescue breathing and chest compressions.

Now 41, Mary Jo is a passionate advocate for CPR and defibrillation. “Sudden cardiac arrest can happen anytime — at a little league field or in a grocery store. And if it happens in public, people should be as lucky as I am. Knowing CPR, you can help save a life. Of all the people in the store, you wouldn’t have thought it would be me,” says Mary Jo, who didn’t smoke and went to the gym three days a week. “I was probably one of the youngest and the fittest.”

Mary Jo adds that cardiac arrests most often end in tragedy, but the tragedy is that they don’t have to. “The hour I was saved, 19 other people died. If wasn’t for Jim knowing CPR, I would have been lying there, dying. Even if I had survived, without CPR I could have been like a vegetable.”

When Mary Jo was asked to give a speech in Albany about her experience, she was at a loss for words. But not for long. “’My children were motherless for 10 minutes,’” she told the audience. “It was a harsh message, but it got their attention.”