Life, interrupted: No one expected Hailey Lane, a swimmer and Air Force Academy cadet, to go into cardiac arrest
Hailey Lane and her mother, Brigid Lane.
Photo by Allen Jones, VCU University Marketing
After Sept. 11, 2001, a 6-year-old named Hailey Lane became convinced her destiny was to serve in the military and help protect her country. Soon afterward, she set her sights on doing whatever it took to earn an appointment to a military academy.
An active and athletic child, Hailey was a constant burst of energy, always pushing and testing herself, according to her parents. This was especially true with swimming, where she thrived and found her niche. At age 18 after graduating from high school, Hailey’s dreams of the military converged with her burgeoning swimming career and she was recruited to swim collegiately at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
An unexpected interruption
In the spring of 2015, Hailey’s twin pursuits were dramatically altered. Now a 19-year-old at the Air Force Academy, she came home to visit for spring break. On March 23, she had lunch with her mother, Brigid.
“Hailey said to me, ‘Mom, I’m in the best shape of my life,’” Brigid said. “She looked fantastic.”
Hailey headed to a local gym to train for an upcoming physical fitness test at the academy. Everything seemed normal to Brigid that day — until the phone rang.
“I got this phone call saying, ‘Your daughter Hailey is hurt,’” Brigid said. “The person on the other end of the line asked if I could get to the gym.”
After doing a series of pull-ups, Hailey had collapsed while she was stretching and had gone into cardiac arrest. She did not have a pulse. An anesthesiologist who happened to be working out nearby was able to intubate her, opening her airways and allowing oxygen to move through her lungs. She was then repeatedly shocked with a defibrillator to no effect. Emergency medical services arrived on the scene and transported Hailey to the closest hospital. She was without a pulse for 20 minutes, but ultimately doctors were able to restart her heart. She was only weeks away from celebrating her 20th birthday with her twin sister, Savannah.
An uncertain future
For the next two days, Hailey’s family waited anxiously for good news. Unfortunately, it didn’t come. Hailey’s condition did not improve and, in fact, it worsened. She was on ECMO, which is a specialized form of cardiac life support; her blood pressure was dangerously low; and her right leg was swelling to the point of possible amputation. The goal was to get her stabilized in order to transport her to Virginia Commonwealth University Health Pauley Heart Center, but she wasn’t near stabilizing and time was running out. The decision was made to take the chance and transport her anyway.
Hailey’s family said their goodbyes as she was loaded onto an ambulance and could only hope she would live to make it to VCU.
“I was looking at a girl who was no longer there,” Brigid said. “I wanted her back so badly. I wanted someone to tell me there was hope.”
Dennis Lane, Hailey’s father, recalls emotions being raw in that moment. Everyone was exhausted. They thought the transport would take several hours, so they took their time packing their belongings before heading to VCU to meet Hailey. The transport took half the time they expected and Hailey survived. For the first time in days, the Lane family felt a sense of relief.
Rajiv Malhotra, D.O., medical director of the Cardiac Surgery Intensive Care Unit, was the physician who received Hailey’s transfer.
“I remember a state of shock upon first seeing her at how sick she was combined with her young age,” Malhotra said. “At that point I thought the chances of survival were very poor.”
In addition to Hailey’s critical condition caused by the unexplained cardiac arrest, her leg remained dangerously swollen from obstruction of blood flow. A rapid evaluation by the team at VCU revealed that the cannula, a tube used to return blood into the body from the ECMO circuit, had been inserted into a small vessel and was compromising blood flow to the leg. Hailey’s best chance for survival was in the operating room, where surgeons could move the cannula to her aorta so it could function properly and relieve pressure from her leg.
“Within an hour of getting Hailey to VCU, I got a call on my cell phone from a cardiac surgeon who had already evaluated her and several follow-up phone calls from nurses in the operating room giving me updates,” Dennis said. “This was before we even got there. Whether it was a turning point or not, it sure was a relief to have that interaction.” Hailey survived surgery and her family said noticeable improvements, such as the color returning to her skin, were almost immediate, but she still had a long road to recovery. While she remained in a medically induced coma and some days were touch and go, the small details in the compassionate care that Hailey and her family received made a difference.
“The problem is, when you’re in that low state you know that when the physician is coming forward there could be some bad news mixed in with the good, or it could all be bad news,” Brigid said. “We were always informed about everything that was happening in a very compassionate way.”
Hailey was removed from the ventilator on Easter Sunday. Her family says hearing her voice for the first time was a great gift. No one was surprised one of the first things she requested was food.
The power of a collaborative team
A lot of people can be credited with saving Hailey’s life including the gym staff, medical staff, nurses, nutritionists, pharmacists, perfusionists, ECMO specialists, surgical staff and ICU team. Representatives from each of the VCU Health disciplines involved in Hailey’s treatment participated in daily rounds to evaluate Hailey’s care plan, Malhotra said, adding that another critical member of that team is the family.
“Being part of the care team helps the family to feel involved,” Malhotra said. “It also provides us a lot of valuable information, as far as what her life was like before she got sick, things they saw overnight that maybe the nurse may not have seen. They are a pretty important part of the multidisciplinary team.”
As Hailey slowly continued to heal, the focus of her recovery shifted from survival to prevention of a repeat attack. A few days before Hailey was discharged on May 6, Richard Shepard, M.D., an electrophysiologist at VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, put a defibrillator inside Hailey’s body near her sternum.
“It’s not to make her feel better,” he said. “It’s to keep this from happening again, which is critically important.”
Today, Hailey is doing very well and continues to hit major milestones in her recovery. She is finished with regular vascular care and is starting to slowly run again. Perhaps what most excites her is that she was recently cleared to return to the pool. She is attending school at a local community college with the goal of returning to the Air Force Academy in June.
“It took me a while to cope with such a drastic lifestyle change,” Hailey said. “But I learned that life goes on and you have to be prepared for anything life hits you with. I think that mentality has really helped me recover and get stronger."
The “Hailey Strong” campaign spread across social media with help from athletes such as Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, at right.
It is that mentality that led Hailey’s family and friends to start the “Hailey Strong” campaign while she was in the hospital. The campaign started organically as messages of support and hope poured in from all parts of the country through social media reminding the Lanes that Hailey is a fighter and not to give up hope. Hailey’s story continued to spread through social media, with Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin, state and national government officials and leaders from all branches of the military among those pulling for Hailey through words of comfort and encouragement. The Lanes relied on this support from friends, family and complete strangers to help them get through the darkest hours. Brigid says the “Hailey Strong” campaign was a call to arms that was executed with kindness and selflessness.
The Lanes want to maintain that momentum, and one of Hailey’s biggest goals is to continue the campaign by helping people in the hospital who may not have the community support that she had. This holiday season, Hailey and her family are preparing small bags with creature comforts and words of encouragement to deliver to Cardiac Intensive Care Unit families in the same place they were just nine months ago.
“The best way I can repay and thank the health care providers and the community for their constant support is to live my life to the fullest — to live a happy life — that is the best way I can say thank you,” she said.
As for Brigid and Dennis, while they attribute much of Hailey’s survival to the excellent medical care and research delivered at VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, they believe the open-access approach also played a critical role in her recovery.
“I’m so grateful we were at VCU,” Brigid said. “We were always asking questions and at VCU they would respond again and again. They allowed our family as much access to her as possible. They treated her like she was a member of their family and they still do. They gave us our daughter back and that is the greatest gift.”
Hailey Lane at her parents' home in December 2015.
Photo by Allen Jones, VCU University Marketing