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'You Were Dead': A Vermont Composer Searches For The Person Who Saved Her Life

An illustration of a violin, guitar and cello against a pink, orange and yellow pastel background.
Sara Baker, Courtesy
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Burlington, Vermont musician Danielle O'Hallisey was walking in downtown Burlington when she had a heart attack. Now she's trying to find the person who performed CPR on her, and saved her life.

Danielle O’Hallisey is a Burlington, Vermont guitarist, composer and electromechanical engineer, and she is looking for the person who saved her life.

VPR's Mary Engisch caught up with O’Hallisey via Zoom recently. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Danielle O'Hallisey: On Sept. 2, I was walking up the hill from my studio back to my house. I had gone to pick up a guitar. There was a, there was an LGBT interfaith service that I was supposed to play guitar at that evening.

And I just remember starting to get lightheaded. I've had other heart attacks. In April, I had one that was very minor. And this felt exactly the same.

So I remember thinking, "OK, I'll just sit down here for a second. And then when I get home, I'll get in my car and drive to the ER, I'm sure it'll be fine."

And the next thing I knew I was waking up in an ambulance, where someone was telling me that it was against every odd that I was at all alive, let alone that [I] was alive and didn't have brain damage.

And it was only because I had fallen in a place where someone called 911 immediately, but more importantly, that someone began administering CPR in the first minute or less of my being on the ground.

I was in a state called “ventricular fibrillation,” which is apparently something that the body doesn't come back from on its own. It's simply, everyone I've talked to has said, “You were dead.”

I'm still asking myself, like, I do a lot of asking myself, “What did I do wrong to end up with so many bad things happening to me?”

But this time, it completely reversed, the inner dialogue. It's like, ”What did I do to deserve this? This is awesome!” That's the short version.

"I'm still asking myself, like, I do a lot of asking myself, 'What did I do wrong to end up with so many bad things happening to me?' But this time, it completely reversed, the inner dialogue. It's like, 'What did I do to deserve this? This is awesome!' That's the short version."
Danielle O'Hallisey

Mary Engisch: Wow. So I understand you've been using some social media to sort of reach out and find out who these people were that were really in the right place at the right time.

A lot of time went by. I had contacted the EMTs and they said they didn't have any information, but I should call the police. I left a half dozen messages on phones at the police station and wasn't hearing back from them. So over the weekend, I decided it was important to try to find this person, and the one who did CPR. I didn't even realize there were two different people involved.

vpr-danielle-o'hallisey-cpr-hero-search-20210918.jpg
Danielle O'Hallisey
Danielle O'Hallisey wants to thank the nurse practitioner who performed CPR on her after a heart attack in early September.

And once I posted on the Next Door app, someone recommended the Facebook group, "Downtown Burlington," I guess. And when I pasted it there, it got shared dozens of times and like, seen hundreds of times than the original post.

And pretty soon the guy that called 911 stepped forward, and we spoke and I was ... it really was amazing to me. Because all I wanted to do was thank him.

I was like, "How can I, you know, can I take you out for a drink? Like somehow I want to reward you," and he was practically in tears, and said, "Oh my God, all I knew was that I've been heartbroken because I figured you must have died. I watched you drop. You stopped breathing in front of my eyes, and I put you in an ambulance and never knew what happened to you."

So he was grateful to know that I had survived. I think we're gonna at least have that drink, but we're gonna become buddies in the future. I'm very happy to know someone that did that.

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So you are still searching for the person who performed CPR. Have you heard any more about that?

The only thing I did hear is finally the police got back to me, and they said they have her name and contact information, but they can't give it to me for concerns of privacy.

So, she is a nurse practitioner. Everyone, from the second I was in the ambulance and complaining about how incredibly much pain I was in, started telling me, “Yes, that's because you fell at the feet of a nurse practitioner who knew what she was doing. Because when you do CPR, you break ribs. Get over it. It's gonna hurt for a month and a half, but you just survived something you shouldn't have.”

Hear more of Mary Engisch's interview with O'Hallisey — including about the grant the Vermont Arts Council recently awarded her to complete a multimedia project four years in the making called, "Women of Aeronautics" — on Safe & Sound. Tune in at 6 p.m. Saturday on your radio, smartspeaker or VPR's online stream.

See Danielle O'Hallisey perform in the video below:

Fantasia on Sor's Study in B minor

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