Nurses back in Naperville race after saving man last year
None of the three nurses who helped save a man's life during last year's inaugural Edward Hospital Naperville Marathon and Half Marathon had been back to the spot in Springbrook Prairie where it happened.
Stephanie Chang, Traci Iarrobino and Merri Lazenby hadn't run again on the trail they call the "prairie path," where Steve Sloma of Geneva collapsed and needed help.
They weren't avoiding the scene; two of them live nearby and drive past it frequently.
They hadn't stopped running and they weren't discouraged by finishing the half marathon with delayed times.
If anything kept the nurses who were hailed as heroes away from the site of their lifesaving actions, it was emotion.
"I've had mixed emotions about it," Lazenby said about the place where Sloma went into cardiac arrest, the southern path through Springbrook Prairie near 87th Street between Book and Naperville/Plainfield roads. "There is a sense that I'd love to run past that area and just be able to replay that a little bit because it was scary, but it was also a blessing that I could help."
"I think it's always going to be a special race, at least in my head, because of what happened," Lazenby said.
Reflecting on the race that turned into an emergency, the nurses said they were part of a chain of "saviors" or "angels," that helped prevent a triumphant distance-running finish from turning into tragedy.
Becoming an 'angel'
Chang and Iarrobino, who are neighbors in addition to working as nurses in different departments at Edward Hospital, were running the half marathon together with Chang's sister, Amy Drendel, also of Naperville. They were past mile marker 6 when they climbed a hill in the forest preserve, turned around a bend and saw a man on the ground.
While at first it looked like the man had injured a limb, the nurses soon began wondering if he was having a seizure. Iarrobino pulled up the man's shirt and Chang checked for a pulse. No luck. She then stationed herself near the fallen runner's head and began CPR while Iarrobino started chest compressions on a much larger patient than those she usually treats in the neonatal intensive care unit, where she cares for tiny, premature babies.
When Lazenby jogged up with the 2:30 half marathon pace group, she became the second layer of rescuer.
"Merri was kind of my savior for the whole thing because I was doing chest compressions and I'm a NICU nurse, and when Merri came up and said she was an ER nurse it was like 'You're my angel! Oh, here, let me switch places with you,'" Iarrobino said.
Lazenby said she also remembers Sloma lying on his side near the top of a hill and not knowing immediately that he was in distress. Heck, she was feeling bad enough after climbing the hill that she also wanted a break, and taking a siesta didn't look like a half-bad idea.
Nurse humor aside, Lazenby's emergency room training kicked in. As she cared for Sloma, who wasn't breathing, the leader of the 2:30 pace group joined Drendel and others in trying to get help.
Lazenby said the pacer offered to sprint from the scene to Naperville Fire Station 5 at 87th Street and Plainfield/Naperville Road, but by then, the next level of saviors was arriving on an all-terrain vehicle carrying an automated external defibrillator -- a device used to restart the heart after cardiac arrest.
To the finish
The AED shocked Sloma back to life. Then, as the story goes, his heart returned to a normal enough rhythm that he wanted to continue the race. He had run half marathons before, and he thought he'd only passed out, so he wanted to go back to racing.
Paramedics wouldn't let him and took him instead to Edward Hospital, coincidentally the race's title sponsor.
For the nurses, the emergency was a shock, too, and a test of their clinical skills outside the hospital setting.
And then as quickly as it started, it was back to being any other race.
Drendel and Iarrobino said their group would take a few steps, then start to cry; go silent for a while, then pour out their emotions about what just happened.
"It was probably the least amount we've ever talked, yet the most amount we've ever talked about the same thing for the entire run," Iarrobino said.
After the save, Lazenby said her whole body felt like "Jell-O." Luckily, the pacer who abandoned the 2:30 group, a man the nurses remember only as Mike or possibly John, became her personal guide to the finish.
Iarrobino said the pacer's role was significant because he helped four people achieve what they set out to do that chilly November day. Before saving a man's life, the nurses' aim was as simple as every runner's most basic target.
"The goal was for us to finish the race, and if it wasn't for him there was probably a good chance none of us would have finished," Iarrobino said.
To the start
All three nurses and Chang's sister, Drendel, are running the half marathon again this year. Chang said they want to make it an annual tradition, especially since they were among only 2,500 participants in the first race.
They're thinking race day could be bittersweet. The new course, which runs through more neighborhoods and no forest preserves, avoids the area where Sloma went into cardiac arrest and the nurses went into hero mode.
They know race day will be busier, with 6,000 runners registered as opposed to the 3,500 signed up last year.
Marathon organizers say they'll be just as prepared in case an unexpected health problem happens, with 20 doctors, 30 nurses and 10 medical technicians scattered throughout the course.
"We know time is of the essence and we're going to have a very strong medical plan in place again this year," said Brian Davis, system vice president and chief marketing officer for Edward-Elmhurst Healthcare.
But if Chang, Iarrobino and Lazenby get their way, race day for the second annual Naperville Half Marathon will become a simpler memory than its counterpart a year ago -- not tinged with surprise, pressure, danger, relief and tears, but only with accomplishment. If the nurses get their way, they'll fade into the background among thousands of runners and they won't make any part of a chain of saviors. They won't be anyone's angel, and they won't need an angel, either.
As race day nears, the nurses connected by a stranger's emergency plan to find each other for a friendly greeting at the starting line. And then they plan to run, counting their blessings with every step.
"I'm amazed that this number of people who were specifically trained to respond to this emergency would happen to be in the same area in a half marathon where that service and that level of care needed to be given," Lazenby said. "I think it's nothing short of a blessing."