Their lives were rudely interrupted in dramatically different ways, from a lightning bolt to a heart attack to an ATV accident. One was declared brain dead; another was disconnected from life support to allow her to die; the third was in the deepest coma recognized by medical science.
They all left something behind — a toll that must be paid by anyone who gets that close to death’s door — and they battle every day to regain what they had before fate disrupted their lives. Their days are more difficult, but at the same time more precious.
But the thing that Lara Eustermann, Jill Finley and Zack Dunlap have most in common is that they’re very thankful to be alive this Thanksgiving.
All three had told their dramatic stories on TODAY within weeks or months of their close encounters with death. Wednesday they returned to Studio 1A in New York to talk about how far they’ve come since.
Struck by lightning
Lara Eustermann walks with an unsteady gait. She needed the helpful and loving hand of her husband, John, to negotiate up a riser to get to the couch in the TODAY studio. But she gets around well and can do all the many things required of a busy mother of four children aged 4 to 15.
“I can drive, I can cook, I can do everything,” she told TODAY’s Matt Lauer with a bright smile. On the other hand, she conceded, “My short-term memory is still pretty bad.” And she is subject to bouts of depression when she can’t do some simple tasks.
“When my little boys ask me to tie their shoes, I can’t do that. I get angry, I get sad,” she said. But life continues to get better for the Oregon woman, who by all rights shouldn’t be alive at all.
Lara Eustermann’s life changed forever on Oct. 1, 2007, when she, her two youngest boys and her mother, Kathy Larsen, were strolling atop a ridge looking at property where the family was considering building a country house. A single thick, black storm cloud suddenly approached the foursome.
Without warning, lightning struck the area with a deafening crack, knocking Larsen, her grandsons and their mother off their feet. Everyone got up immediately except Eustermann, who had taken a direct hit from the bolt. It had struck the top of her head and exited her ankles.
Larsen ran to her daughter, whose eyes were open but was unresponsive. Realizing that Lara was turning blue from lack of oxygen, Larsen began performing CPR on her daughter, but had to leave her for a bit to go back to the car to grab her cell phone. When the 911 operator asked if Lara had a pulse, Larsen reported: “I think she’s gone!”
Three weeks later, Lara Eustermann opened her eyes and started speaking. She emerged from the coma extremely tired and remembering nothing about the lightning strike, or even anything that had happened in her life a full month before it. She told Lauer Wednesday she still hasn’t recaptured the memories of that lost month.
After she came out of the coma, Lara went to a rehabilitation center for nearly two months. When she first appeared on TODAY, she was able to move her fingers and wiggle her toes, but couldn’t walk.
Since then, she’s taught herself to walk again. With the help of chiropractors who specialize in the upper cervical spine and AMMA therapy, which she described as “acupuncture without the needles,” she’s conquered much of her pain and continues to recover her mobility and coordination. On the whole, she said, “I’m feeling pretty darn good.”
Eustermann’s husband John joked that Lara’s reduced mobility is actually a benefit for their 4-year-old son. “The littlest guy now realizes he can get away from Mom. She can’t catch him,” he said.
Her close encounter with death has left Lara with a nagging question: “Why me?”
“I certainly don’t want to think God singled me out,” she said. “ ‘Why me?’ is a big question. I think maybe I’m supposed to do something with this.”
Deathbed to maternity ward?
Last June, Ryan Finley had signed all the paperwork to remove his beloved wife, Jill, from life support. He was at her bedside when the machines were disconnected, waiting for the death that doctors said was inevitable.
But while Ryan was saying goodbye, Jill said hello. Actually, she didn’t use that word. What Jill Finley actually said was, “Get me out of here.”
Then she said she wanted to go out for Mexican food.
“I still have a few issues — definitely still the short-term memory,” she said. “I have a little bit of vertigo, too. Other than that, I feel great.”
Doctors were powerless to explain why Finley didn’t die more than a year ago, and remain so to this day. “We’ve gotten no answers from anybody,” she said. “I’m a textbook story. We’re in textbooks because nobody has any idea what caused it.”
The Finleys’ remarkable story began on the morning of Saturday, May 26, 2007, when Ryan tried to wake his wife up and found her unresponsive.
The couple would later learn 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.
Ryan 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 in an attempt to minimize damage to her brain caused by lack of oxygen.
Finley was alive insofar as she was breathing and her heart was beating ... but she was in a deep coma.
The next day, another entry: “I know Jill wouldn’t want to live like this.”
He finally made the decision he knew Jill would have wanted him to make: He told the doctors to pull the plug.
That’s when she came back to him.
Doctors implanted a pacemaker to prevent a recurrence of the heart problem that nearly killed her. Today she’s still undergoing therapy, but hopes to return to work soon. But before that comes, Lara and Ryan Finley have another project.
“We’re trying to have a family,” Ryan told Vieira. “We got the OK from the doctors. We’re going to try to have a little Finley running around.”
Both Lara and Ryan said they have come away from her near-death with a deep sense of faith.
“For the first time in my life, I found faith through this,” Ryan said. “You learn to appreciate life so much more. Every day is a gift, and you have to take advantage of it.”
Added Jill: “It’s just brought us both closer to God.”
“Pain won’t ever go away,” Zack Dunlap reported when Lauer asked him how he feels a year after being declared brain dead. “It’s getting better, but I just don’t complain about pain. Why make other people worry?”
The young man’s mother, Pam Dunlap, said that’s just like the son she’s always known and loved: a tough kid who never complains. That’s why, she says, “in a lot of ways, he’s exactly like he was” before the day he crashed his ATV and slammed his helmetless head into the pavement.
But not in all ways. “He’s also a little different,” Pam added. “His personality’s a little bit different.”
She didn’t say how her son has changed. His sister, Kacy, who joined the family on TODAY, agreed that she’s seen some unspecified differences in Zack. “But he’s still the same, pretty much.”
Dunlap is still working to get all the way back physically, and to get back to work. But his family is just grateful he’s still with them and still able to smile and appreciate the blessings of life.
Zack fell behind his friends on a highway just outside of Davidson, Okla., not far from his home in the ranching town of Frederick, near the Texas border. He gunned his machine to catch up, again rearing it onto its back wheels. When he dropped the front wheels back to the pavement, he saw that he was going to crash into a friend’s machine that had stopped a short way up the road.
Dunlap tried to swerve, but flipped his machine and went flying, smashing headfirst and face-down onto the asphalt. He remained there motionless, unresponsive to his friends, who quickly called 911.
Taken first to a local hospital, he was then airlifted 50 miles away to United Regional Healthcare System in Wichita Falls, Texas, where there was a trauma unit better able to treat the severe damage he had done to his brain. But 36 hours after the accident, doctors performed a PET scan and informed his parents, along with other family members who had gathered to keep vigil at the hospital, that there was no blood flowing to Zack’s brain; he was brain dead. A second scan confirmed the results of the first.
His family agreed to allow surgeons to harvest his organs to give life to others. Calls went out to organ-donor networks, and surgeons began planning the organ harvest while Dunlap’s family gathered around the young man’s bedside to say goodbye.
Some four hours after doctors declared Zack dead, a nurse began to remove tubes from Dunlap. His cousins, Dan and Christy Coffin, both of whom are nurses, were also in the room. Something about Zack’s appearance made them think that he wasn’t as dead as the doctors said. On a hunch, Dan pulled out his bone-handled pocket knife and ran the blade up the sole of one of Zack’s feet.
‘Our son is still alive!’
The foot yanked away, but the other nurse said it was only a reflex action. So Dan Coffin then dug a fingernail under one of Zack’s nails. Zack yanked his arm away and across his body.
That, the other nurse agreed, wasn’t a reflex action. It was a sign of life.
“We went from the lowest possible moment to ‘Oh, my gosh, our son is still alive!’ ” Pam Dunlap told TODAY last year. “We had gone from the lowest possible emotion that a parent could feel to the top of the mountain again.”
Doctors warned the family that Zack could have profound brain damage that would prevent his leading anything resembling an active life. But five days after he opened his eyes, and 48 days after the accident, he walked out of a rehab center and returned home, where the entire town gave him a hero’s welcome.
“I just had to test myself and try riding in a safe way,” he said. “Whenever you are hydroplaning and jumping hill climbs, you kind of realize, ‘I have to get off it.’ ”
“I almost had a heart attack when I found out,” Pam Dunlap told Lauer. “It was a very sick feeling. I was just begging him to please not do that again.”
Zack had no medical insurance when he crashed, and the family has a mountain of medical bills they will never be able to fully repay. But they’re not complaining.
“That’s something you just try to work through because we’re so blessed to have him with us,” Pam Dunlap said.
Lauer asked Zack what he’s learned in the past year.
“I’m thankful for me making it through it and the lessons that I learned,” he said. “It still makes me sorry for what my family and what my friends had to go through.”