Brittany Williams' life nearly ended in 2014 in a restaurant in Times Square in New York City.
At just 24, Williams went into cardiac arrest and lost consciousness. Two strangers jumped into action and gave Williams CPR for eight minutes, and after being put in a medical coma, she woke up in the hospital two days later.
Nearly a decade later, Williams shared her story in a Feb. 6 segment on the TODAY show to raise awareness about heart health and the importance of CPR training — and to remind everyone that even young people can find themselves in life-threatening situations like hers.
The warning signs
Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart muscle malfunctions due to an "electrical problem" and suddenly stops beating, according to the American Heart Association. About 90% of people who experience cardiac arrest outside the hospital die, per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it's possible to reverse cardiac arrest if a bystander starts CPR and uses a defibrillator to shock the heart back to a normal rhythm within minutes.
Cardiac arrest and heart attack are often thought of as the same thing, but they're different. A heart attack occurs when there's a blockage in the heart.
Both heart attacks and cardiac arrest can occur without any warning or symptoms beforehand. But in Williams's case, she dismissed a major warning sign the week before she went to New York City.
"I was at work, and all of a sudden the left side of my body went numb and tingly," she said. "I sat back and thought, 'Oh no, this doesn't feel right. This is not what I feel like on a day-to-day basis.'"
As the feeling started to get worse, Williams searched the internet for what her symptoms could mean and found concerning results. "Three things came up: stroke, heart attack, cardiac arrest," she explained. She took her concerns to her boss, who brushed it off.
"You're 24 years old. You run five miles a day. You eat extremely healthy, that would never happen to you," Williams recalled her boss saying. "I trusted her. And three days later, I was on the ground in a restaurant in Times Square with no pulse."
Williams doesn't remember much about when she had the cardiac arrest — the only change she noticed in her body prior was the tingling feeling. But her parents witnessed her go into cardiac arrest.
"My mom and dad looked over, and they thought I was having a seizure," she said. "My eyes rolled to the back of my head, and I just collapsed, and I was unresponsive.
It's important to recognize that heart issues can affect anyone, Dr. Stacey Rosen, a cardiologist at Northwell Health's Katz Institute for Women's Health and volunteer for the American Heart Association, told TODAY.
"Listen to your body," said Rosen, who did not treat Williams. "Heart disease affects young people, old people, thin, healthy runners. And when you feel something isn't right, act on it." She stressed the importance of contacting a health care professional if you feel something is wrong, even if other people think you shouldn't worry.
Treatment for cardiac arrest
We tend to think of the heart exclusively as a muscle, but "it's actually got an exquisite electrical mechanism. And that electrical impulse makes the heart pump," Rosen explained.
With CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), any trained bystander can provide compression and rescue breaths that may restart the heart.
Two ophthalmologists who happened to be in the restaurant when Williams lost consciousness were able to provide CPR for eight minutes, which kept her alive until she got emergency medical help.
At the hospital, Williams was diagnosed with long QT syndrome, a condition that causes a fast, irregular heartbeat, according to Mayo Clinic.
Long QT syndrome causes "an electric disturbance that makes the heart rhythm chaotic, and then the heart can't pump normally," Rosen explained. "After a few seconds, you lose consciousness."
Williams had surgery to implant a defibrillator to prevent more episodes in the future, she said. Implantable defibrillators prevent dangerously fast or irregular heartbeats, per the Mayo Clinic.
For a while after the ordeal, Williams was "in a state of constant fear" of having another cardiac arrest, she recalled. "But I knew deep down that I had gotten a second chance at life, and I wasn't going to waste it."
Now she takes time to encourage people to learn CPR and to teach them about heart health "so there can be more stories with endings like mine."