Imagine being 31 years old and having to make the agonizing decision to discontinue the life-support keeping your comatose spouse alive. Now imagine that spouse waking up and asking for Mexican food.
“It’s crazy. It’s absolutely crazy,” Jill Finley, the woman who was supposed to die, told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira during an interview Monday. “It is truly a miracle that I’m here talking to you today.”
On the morning of Saturday, May 26, Jill’s husband, Ryan Finley, tried to wake her up and found her unresponsive.
The couple would learn later that Jill had a congenital condition that had caused her heart to stop. When Ryan realized she wasn’t breathing, he reached back 10 years to a CPR course he had taken, dragged her out of bed and onto the floor, and started to apply those never-used lessons.
He called 911 and continued to work on his lifeless wife until paramedics arrived and shocked her heart back to life. They rushed her to the Oklahoma Heart Hospital, where the medical staff put her on a respirator and dressed her in a special suit that lowered her body temperature to attempt to minimize damage to her brain caused by lack of oxygen.
She was alive in that she was breathing and her heart was beating, but she was in a deep coma.
Ryan, a plumbing contractor in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, stayed by her side, reading the Bible to her and sometimes lying on the bed next to her. But as the days passed, her condition remained unchanged.
Doctors wouldn’t come right out and say that the situation was hopeless, but they did say that only one to two percent of such cases recovered to live normal lives.
“It was grim,” Ryan told Vieira. “I’ll put it that way. Everything they told me was grim.”
During the ordeal, Ryan kept a diary. On June 6, 11 days after Jill stopped breathing, he wrote, “Today could be the worst day of my life. I essentially have to decide whether or not she will die or not.”
The next day, another entry: “I know Jill wouldn’t want to live like this.”
Ryan had made his agonizing decision. He would pull the plug.
“She’s my soul mate and my wife, my everything in this whole world,” Ryan told Vieira, the words struggling against his emotions. “And it was up to me whether or not she lived or not. That’s a bad thing to go through.”
On June 9, at about 6 p.m., Ryan and Jill’s family said their goodbyes and doctors disconnected Jill from the machines that had been keeping her alive. She didn’t die immediately, and after a time, Ryan had to go to a judge to sign papers relating to the decision to disconnect Jill from life support.
One last ‘rally’
He returned around 11 p.m. to sit with her and wait for the end in the hospice where she was being cared for.
“About 11:45, she started getting restless,” he said, an eventuality he had been prepared for. “People told me they call it the last rally. When a person is about to pass, they tend to regain some body function, be able to talk or move — things that they hadn’t been able to do previously.”
She also started mumbling. “I thought that was it, that was the last rally,” he said.
But it was soon clear she wasn’t just mumbling. She said, “Get me out of here.” Then she added another request: “Take me to Ted’s and take me to the Melting Pot,” naming two restaurants where she liked to indulge her passion for Mexican food.
“I asked her questions,” Ryan said. “Simple addition, what our phone number was, our dog’s name, our cat’s name. She answered them all correctly, all of ’em. And I knew, ‘This isn’t the last rally.’”
Far from it. Jill had come out of her coma and was breathing on her own. She underwent surgery to implant a pacemaker for her heart condition and then went into a rehabilitation center.
“When I was in the coma, I don’t remember anything,” she told Vieira. “I don’t remember anything from the heart hospital. I do remember the big shower they wheeled me into every day. Other than that, I don’t remember anything.
“I did go to inpatient therapy, and I remember all of that. All of the nurses, and occupational therapists and speech pathologists — I remember all of them. They helped me tremendously.”
She has to work a little to pronounce difficult words, but otherwise seemed completely normal, Vieira observed.
“Pretty much, I am normal,” Jill replied. “I have a little speech that I’m working on. And my short-term memory is off. But other than that, I am doing great.”
And she’s cherishing every day with her husband, who was nominated for an Oklahoma Heart Hero award for his CPR work.
“We cherish each day, each minute, each hour now,” she said. “Not that we didn’t before, it just puts it more in perspective. We just spend every minute that we can together — going to the grocery store now, we go together, go everywhere together. One of our friends, [said], ‘I’m so jealous. You guys are like newlyweds,’” she added, laughing.
She’s on medical leave from her job as a mortgage loan underwriter, but Vieira suggested Jill could have a good future as a spokesperson for the restaurant she asked to go to when she woke up.
“‘When you get out of a coma, go to Ted’s,’” Vieira said. She might have added, “‘Take your husband.’”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints